Figures

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Figures

United States, mid-to-late 1920s
Paintings
Oil on canvas
32 1/4 x 27 3/8 in. (81.92 x 69.53 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Sokol (61.59.1)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Berlin’s turn to modernism was supposedly initiated by his reading of Jerome Eddy’s notable book Cubists and Post-Impressionism (1914), and his earliest abstractions are indebted to cubism....
Berlin’s turn to modernism was supposedly initiated by his reading of Jerome Eddy’s notable book Cubists and Post-Impressionism (1914), and his earliest abstractions are indebted to cubism. Although Berlin probably never visited France, by the 1920s cubism was well known in Los Angeles and he would have been aware of it. In this painting the figures are fused with the surrounding environment in a configuration of overlapping and intersecting faceted planes and ray lines, standard cubist devices. During the 1920s, when this canvas may have been painted, STANTON MACDONALDWRIGHT was the dominant force in Los Angeles’s modernist circles. His art, although exhibiting more arabesque lines, may have influenced Berlin’s treatment of the figure, especially in his use of delicate, translucent planes. The cubist art of Lorser Feitelson, who became a major progressive force in Los Angeles after his move to the West Coast in 1927, also may have served as a model for Berlin. A painting that may have directly inspired Figures is Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp’s often reproduced painting was a notorious modernist work, and it is likely that Berlin became acquainted with it through the collector Walter Arensberg, who had settled in Hollywood in the 1920s and always opened his home to artists. Arensberg did not acquire the painting until 1930, but before that time he proudly displayed a color reproduction of it. As in Duchamp’s painting, Berlin’s cubist analysis of movement results in an allover composition of intersecting planes and diagonal lines colored in a somber dominant hue. The dark lines are in blue with brighter, warm colors brushed in to create a translucent effect. Figures may have been one of the paintings, as was Rhythmic Forms (unlocated), in Berlin’s 1924 exhibition at the Potboiler, for in an article commenting on the show, Berlin was praised for being one of the first to attempt the depiction of the fourth dimension.
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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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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.