The Herwigs

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The Herwigs

United States, 1928
Paintings
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 54 3/8 × 39 1/4 in. (138.11 × 99.7 cm) Frame: 60 1/2 × 45 1/2 × 3 in. (153.67 × 115.57 × 7.62 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Saran Strauss (46.42)
Currently on public view:
Art of the Americas Building, floor 3 MAP IT
Art of the Americas Building, floor 3

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Curator Notes

In the catalogue for the Vysekal memorial exhibition held at the Los Angeles Museum in 1940, Arthur Millier declared The Herwigs to be "a landmark in the figure painting" of Southern California....
In the catalogue for the Vysekal memorial exhibition held at the Los Angeles Museum in 1940, Arthur Millier declared The Herwigs to be "a landmark in the figure painting" of Southern California. During his lifetime Vysekal became best known for multifigured compositions evidencing his early academic training. He had an excellent command of anatomy and depicted his characters brimming with life, their physiques healthy and robust. In The Herwigs he moved further from his training. Although Vysekal depicted fellow artist William K. Von Herwig (b. 1901) and his family, the figures were only a means to exercise his interest in color abstraction. This becomes more apparent when the unusual presentation of the figures is considered: the mother sits inside on a window seat playing with the child while the father looks on from outside, his hands pressed against the window. The figures form a contemporary Holy Family: the placement of the father outside the house accords with the not uncommon practice of depicting Saint Joseph slightly apart from the Virgin and Child. The family is encircled by the Hollywood Hills, which the artist has transformed into a bright background of color and light. The child’s gesture of stretching upward leads the viewer’s eye toward the prismatic glass wind chime, which recalls the coloristic and formal experiments of modernist artists. As early as 1916 Vysekal became fascinated by the abstract quality of color, and by 1921 this was reflected in the titles of many of his now lost paintings, such as Mlle R.: Arrangement in Green; Brickyard: Violet Major; and Arrangement: Scale of Orange. Color theories were popular among artists during the early twentieth century, and Vysekal may have been first introduced to them at the presentation of the Armory Show in Chicago. The art and teaching of STANTON MACDONALD-WRIGHT in Los Angeles during the 1920s no doubt encouraged Vysekal to apply color theory to his solidly rendered figure studies. In a warm palette of oranges and yellows Vysekal constructed the figures of the Herwigs with flickering planes of light and dark. While he did not completely relinquish modeling of the figure, he was more daring in his treatment of the background, abstracting the landscape into arcing color bands. Moreover, the use of a screen between the figures enabled him to play with the refraction of color and light. The brilliant light almost dissolves the forms while creating a halo effect. Arthur Millier described the glowing color as "spiritualizing" the painting’s conception.
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About The Era

The beginning of every century inspires a general sentiment of endless possibilities, and the twentieth century was no exception....
The beginning of every century inspires a general sentiment of endless possibilities, and the twentieth century was no exception. A modern age marked by technological wonders had begun, and the United States was to be its focal point. Lewis Mumford, one of the country’s most brilliant thinkers, explained that, unlike Europe, “the New World expanded the human imagination.” Young American students still traveled to Europe, especially Paris, for their initiation to art, but the progressive new ideas of cubism, futurism, and surrealism that they imbibed only found their true home in the United States.
As demonstrated by the first generation of modernists in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, American artists rarely abandoned referential ties to the physical world completely. The simplification of form, multiple perspectives, and ideas about the fourth dimension that radical proponents of cubism espoused would find their most compelling American expressions in the fishermen of Marsden Hartley, and the animal bones and skulls of Georgia O’Keeffe. To these artists, abstraction meant the synthesis of personal experience.
The introduction of psychological ideas, first in the form of Sigmund Freud’s discussion of the unconscious and later in the writings and art of the surrealists, found an enthusiastic audience in America. Such new concepts not only expanded ideas about the human mind but also encouraged the liberation of social conduct, in particular, sexual mores. Women increasingly became involved in creative aspects of the new modern age. In 1934 the Los Angeles artists Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson issued the only surrealist manifesto to appear in the United States, thereby demonstrating that in a relatively short time California had seriously challenged New York as the leader of the brave new world.
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Label

Exhibition Label, 1997 ...
Exhibition Label, 1997 When The Herwigs was first shown in an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art, in 1928, it drew crowds of admirers as well as effusive praise from the press, suggesting that modern art had at last won acceptance in Los Angeles. A transplant from Chicago, Vysekal was an active member of several progressive art organizations in southern California during the post-World War I era. The Herwigs demonstrates his allegiance to Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s revolutionary synchromist movement, with its application of the principles of music to color. Some of the subtitles of Vysekal’s paintings – Arrangement in Green, Violet Major – show him organizing his compositions around specific color harmonies. In The Herwigs it is the “key” or orange, which produces a strong luminous glow and suggests warmth and optimism. The painting portrays fellow artist William K. Von Herwig and his wife and child posed as the Holy Family, with the Hollywood Hills replacing Palestine as a backdrop. Despite such contemporary references the pyramidal composition of the portrait group is reminiscent of Raphael. Vysekal, like Macdonald-Wright, sought a fusion of modern ideas and universal truths. The frame is a beautiful example of Arts and Crafts hand carving, with cross-straps and other ornamentation limited to the corners.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
  • Vure, Sarah. Circles of Influence: Impressionsim to Modernism in Southern California Art, 1910-1930. Newport Beach, CA. 2000.
  • About the Era.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
  • Vure, Sarah. Circles of Influence: Impressionsim to Modernism in Southern California Art, 1910-1930. Newport Beach, CA. 2000.
  • LACMA: Obras Maestras 1750-1950: Pintura Estadounidense Del Museo De Arte Del Condado De Los Angeles. Mexico, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 2006.
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