Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Forgotten Artist File: Peter Blume

I certainly remember the firt time I saw Peter Blume’s art.  It was as a young boy, playing the board game called Masterpiece.  Masterpiece was produced by Parker Brothers, and the version my parents had was made in 1970 (click here to watch a great old-timey commercial)  To play, the players move around the board and buy paintings for sale or at auctions.  There are 24 works of art reproduced on cards.  The paintings in the game are all taken from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Playing Masterpiece as a kid was a big deal because it was more of an “adult” game.  It deals with things like money and budgeting, and there is also a fair amount of bluffing required, since the paintings have secret values only the owner is aware of, and some of the works are worthless forgeries.  In my childhood home, it was also one of my parent’s games, and allowing my siblings and I to play it required a certain amount of trust on their part, since we lost a lot of playing pieces from other games they had.  My parents version of Masterpiece remains intact to this day and it is still played regularly by my family.  When I get together with my siblings, Masterpiece invariably comes out, and I also was able to introduce my wife (also an artist) to the game when we started dating.
Peter Blume, The Rock, 1948
But enough about my childhood remembrances of an old board game.  One of the “paintings” you could buy and sell in Masterpiece was an extremely odd picture called The Rock, painted by Peter Blume in 1948.  As a child, I obviously didn’t know anything about Blume, or the other more well-known artists represented in the game, such as Jackson Pollock or Marc Chagall, but I always remembered this weird painting.  It depicts a strange landscape, destroyed on the right and being built up on the left.   In the center is the titular object.  A large, broken rock sits on a raised piece of earth, and a desolate landscape is visible behind its platform.  Animal bones lie at the base of the rock, but life springs from the base as well.  A woman below seems to be pulling at the very ground that is supporting it.  When I saw the painting in person for the first time in 2001 while on a business trip to Chicago, I noticed details I had never seen before, like the Coca-Cola sign on the ground at the bottom right.  It is a strange, surreal picture that doesn’t offer a straightforward narrative.  I really didn’t know that much about Blume besides this painting and a few others, so I decided to research him a little more for this blog.  He has a decent representation on the Internet, but in choosing images I tried to pick some that I hadn’t seen before.  Even though some of his work is visible online, he's an example of a once well-known artist who has since faded into obscurity.  His work definitly deserves a look.

Blume, Cyclamen, 1925

Blume was born in Russia in 1906 but his family immigrated to the US when he was still very young.  Settling in New York City, Blume was interested in art at a young age and started taking classes when he was 17.  At the time Blume started honing his artistic style, New York City was in an interesting place art-wise.  Realism was still dominant, but abstraction (introduced to New York at the famous Armory Show of 1913) was also making its mark.  Blume, along with artists like Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, and Charles Burchfield, had a toe in both worlds.  A strong base of realism in these artists was tempered by a flair for the abstract.  Blume was especially influenced by Cubism in his early career, as evidenced by this early painting.  He showed at the same gallery in New York with Sheeler and Demuth, and it’s interesting to see that they were all working through similar ideas, much like Picasso and Georges Braque had done when they were developing Cubism.

Blume gained a great deal of notoriety during his career and was collected by top museums such as the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, and the aforementioned Art Institute of Chicago.  He also had several well-known collectors interested in his art.  Edgar Kaufmann, founder of Kaufmann’s Department store, owned several Blumes and his son donated The Rock to the Art Institute.  He also commissioned him to paint this picture of his house in the Pennsylvania countryside that some people might have seen before:

It's Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, in case you haven't guessed.

Blume, Passage to Aetna, 1956
Blume’s work isn’t seen much in museums these days.  A victim of changing tastes as well as limited exhibition space.  Blume isn’t easy to categorize, and he doesn’t fit neatly into art historical narratives.  He really wasn’t a part of a larger movement, either, and art history often gets broken up into easily digestible sections.

He continued to paint throughout his life, though, and also experimented with sculpture in the 1970s.  He passed away in 1992.  Artists like Blume, who go through periods of obscurity and neglect, are sometimes “re-discovered” and receive new attention and exhibitions (this has recently happened with Blume contemporary Charles Burchfield).   Renewed interest in their work brings their imagery to a whole new generation of admirers.  Blume is well positioned for this kind of re-discovery.  His work combines realism and fantasy in a way that is appealing to many age groups and never really goes out of style.  A curator or writer somewhere may soon see the value in Blume's work, and all the museums that own his paintings will haul them out of storage to be seen by a new generation.

Seeing his work as a young child, I can honestly say that The Rock is one of the first paintings I saw that really puzzled me and made me think.  This is the power of art.  Even a kid playing a board game can see something that stays with him a while and makes him question the world around him. 

Continue scrolling down to see more of Blume's work

Recollection of the Flood, 1969

Venus and Cupid, 1974

Summer, 1966

Next week, a new artist.  It might be someone you've never heard of before.