Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Konrad Cramer and Mr. Stieglitz

In the first two decades of the 20th century there were few “Modernists” among the painters and sculptors in America. This country was behind the times compared to an expanding avant-garde in Europe with special attention given to the recent developments in Cubism taking place in France. Picasso’s notorious Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, arguably the first “Cubist" painting, had been completed in 1907 but was not seen by the public until 1916. Picasso had shown his novel canvas to friends and had received mixed reviews. Braque and his dealer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler were supportive of the new work, but his friend and life long rival, Matisse was not.The more lyrical Matisse considered Picasso’s sharp angles and masked whores “hideous” and the work an assault on the efforts of other modern painters. Picasso would roll up the painting and keep it out of site for years and his direction took a tamer route before arriving at Analytical Cubism.

At about the same time Picasso was experimenting with Les Demoiselles, Alfred Stieglitz, along with Edward Steichen, were working in New York City to elevate the craft of photography to the same heights as painting and sculpture. They were pioneers in the Photo-Secession movement and began a gallery on 5th Avenue to showcase the work of early photographers. In 1908 the gallery shifted across the street and took up the name 291, that of its address on Fifth Ave.Stieglitz broadened the venue and began showing works by the European Modernists. Auguste Rodin exhibited a series of watercolors and Matisse exhibited his first works in America at 291.Stieglitz had established a beachhead of modern art in America. He envisioned the gallery as a place where dialogue between artists and patrons could exist and where new ideas about art could be available to the public. Alfred Stieglitz would persistently and slowly change the way America felt about Modern Art and provided one of the only places in New York for young American artists to see modern European art.

Brancusi Exhibition at “291” in 1916

photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, published in Camera Work

The Young Konrad Cramer came to New York as a German immigrant. He had recently married a young American art student, Florence Ballin, in 1911 and settled in New York. He soon became an acquaintance and friend of Alfred Stieglitz, as he was most likely drawn to 291. The two shared a common history. Stieglitz who was a first generation American of German-Jewish parents had moved back to Karlsruhe, Germany with his family in 1881 when he was a teen. Kramer had studied at Karlsruhe Academy. Their common background and love on modern art must have generated many interesting conversations. Cramer also enjoyed photography and over the course of his career he devoted more and more time to this. At one point he felt his pursuit of painting was exhausted, but he was invigorated by the photographic medium. Much of his passion for photography could have been derived from his association with Stieglitz.

Konrad often came to “291” and in 1913 he visited the gallery to see an impressive collection of watercolors by the French painter Francis Picabia. Picabia was in New York City, for the important 1913 Armory Exhibition. He was the only Cubist to attend the exhibition and was able to witness his works hanging alongside those by Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse and the controversial Marcel Duchamp with his painting Nude Descending a Staircase. The public furor surrounding the exhibition was considerable, but Stieglitz was impressed with the work. He purchased Kandinsky's The Garden of Love (Improvisation No. 27) and offered Picabia a one man show at "291."Three days after the close of the Armory Exhibition Picabia's show opened at "291." The works were completed during his stay and represent the artist's interpretations of New York. The show was influential to Cramer and he immediately wrote his wife to suggest that she see the exhibition. 1.

Stieglitz was helpful to Cramer’s career. Although he never offered Konrad an exhibition at 291, he did place him in a number of group exhibitions he curated. Cramer was expanding his own photographic career, experimenting with the possibilities within the photographic medium. He was a proponent of the new 35mm Leica camera and started the “School of Miniature Photography” in Woodstock (miniature because of the “small” 35mm negative size). Cramer also started one of first photography courses offered in a college program at Bard College. Stieglitz wrote his letter of recommendation for the position.

Perhaps the most endearing connection between these two artists exists in a series of portraits taken by Stieglitz in the gallery at 291. After the session Cramer writes about the experience and demystifies the process. He makes Stieglitz seem to be a magician with the medium, using the simplest of tools and adjusting light from an overhead skylight with the simplest of techniques. Here is Konrad’s observation of Stieglitz’s photographic method.

The Equipment was extremely simple, almost primitive. He used an 8 x 10-inch view camera, its sagging bellows held up by pieces of string and adhesive tape. The lens was a Steinheil, no shutter. The portraits were made in the smaller of the two rooms at 291 beneath a small skylight. He used Hammer plates with about three second exposures. During the exposure, Stieglitz manipulated a large, white reflector to balance the overhead light. He made about nine such exposures, and then we retired to the washroom which doubled as a darkroom. The plates were developed in a single tray. From the two best negatives he made four platinum contact prints, exposing the frame on the fire escape. He would tend to his prints, with more care than a cook does her biscuits. The finished print finally received a coat of wax for added gloss and protection. 2.

"291"
Alfred Stieglitz © George Eastman House

Konrad Cramer at "291" 1914

Alfred Stieglitz © George Eastman House

What is interesting in these two photographs is how Stieglitz poses the painter in front of different framed pictures in the gallery. He carefully aligns the picture frame with the edge of the photograph, making them appear as two parallel rectangles that hold the figure in suspension in a shallow three-dimensional space. Cramer is positioned diagonally in each picture resting his elbow on the shelf that ran the perimeter of the room. This helps to stabilize the sitter during the long three-second pose. Konrad also seems to have a fixed view as if told by Stieglitz to look at a specific point on the opposite wall. The overall effect shows the power behind a Stieglitz portrait; posed, framed and contemplative it allows us to look into the subject and find meaning in the soul of this particular artist. Both Stieglitz and Cramer seem to have reached an understanding at this moment. The photographer capturing the essence of the painter as the painter relays the simple method of the photographer in his description of the process.

Postscript:

It is surprising to note how few individuals there were in New York City in the first decades of the 20th century involved with progressive ideas with a commitment to shaping the future. Parkhurst, Cramer, and Stieglitz were certainly three such individuals. Their lives intersected because of their visions for a more open, accepting, and to them, natural society. Parkhurst was life long friends with the artist, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz’s wife. Parkhurst remained involved in the small world of modernist art in New York City through these and other friendships.

In my research I am still searching for more answers to questions about individual story lines that keep crossing. A case in point is a recent discovery in the Dalton Archives from the December 1933 issue of the Daltonian, Volume 1 Number II. The school was preparing for the annual Christmas Pageant, an important event at the school from that time, and I was caught by one of the news items: “Along with the pageant comes the Christmas card contest, from which is chosen the official school card. This year the judges were Dorothy Brett and Mr. Alfred Steiglitz [sic]. The two cards chosen, one to be used for the cover of the pageant program, were two exceptionally beautiful ones by Mariam Rous.”

So Stieglitz, the champion of modern art in this country and one of the world masters of modern photography helped select the student card for the Christmas pageant at Dalton in 1933 - how about that.

1. Tom Wolf, Konrad Cramer: His Art and His Context (1985 New York University Institute of Fine Arts Ph.D. dissertation)

2. Katherine Hoffman, Stieglitz A Beginning Light, © 2004 Yale University Press, page 276

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