A handsome book traces the careers of eight pioneering modernist artists from the state, all women.
Seen from Edina's France Avenue, the figure on the facade of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church looks like a muscular boy scout holding a lamb. In International Falls, Minn., a bas relief of football players charges across a stadium wall. And in Washington, D.C., a bronze statue of Minnesota educator Maria Sanford stands proudly in the visitors center at the entrance to the nation's Capitol.
While all three sculptures are prominently displayed, sculptor Elizabeth Raymond, who designed them more than 50 years ago, has virtually disappeared from public memory. So, too, have seven other talented artists featured in "Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota's First Generation of Women Artists," by Julie L'Enfant. Illustrator, author and bon vivant Wanda Gag is the best known of the lot, which includes droll regionalist Clara Mairs, impressionist Alice Hügy, Art Deco muralist Elsa Jemne, society portraitist Frances Cranmer Greenman, watercolor professor Jo Lutz Rollins and Ada Wolfe, who recorded local scenes.
"Even art historians aren't familiar with these artists now, although a lot has been published about them and they were all very well known in their day," said L'Enfant, chair of the liberal arts department at St. Paul's College of Visual Art. "Pioneering Modernists" is her fourth book, following a novel, a study of Victorian-era art criticism and a volume about Gag.
L'Enfant's latest book was inspired by a 2007 show at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, a now-closed St. Paul institution, of work by Minnesota women who were "working artists before they could even vote for the president of the United States," as Minnesota Historical Society curator Brian Szott wrote in the introduction to "Modernists."
Lavishly illustrated and handsomely designed, "Modernists" is a well-researched and lively read, full of keen insights about the difficulties the women encountered in their professional lives. Only four of the Modernists married and of those only Greenman (1890-1981) and Jemne (1888-1974) had children. All supported themselves, often with jobs they hated but stuck to out of necessity. While in art school, Jemne, for example, did commercial art, which she described in her diary as "stupid, uncongenial, & maddening in its monotony." She also recorded her friend Mairs' observation that "Art was often a cold mistress for whom one suffered much."
Despite tough times in the 1930s when her husband's architecture practice dried up, Jemne (1888-1974) refused more commercial work. Instead she won mural commissions for post offices in Ely and Hutchinson, Minn., and Ladysmith, Wis., the Minneapolis Armory and the American Swedish Institute.
Like the others, Greenman was well-educated and cosmopolitan, having studied at the Corcoran School in Washington, D.C., and then in New York with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, leading teachers of the day. Still, her 1915 engagement to a Minneapolis banker was announced in the Minneapolis Journal under the typically patronizing headline, "Girl Artist to Marry." Despite expectations that married women should devote their attention to home and family, Greenman continued to paint while raising two daughters. After divorcing in 1934 she pursued her career in Hollywood and New York, where her subjects included the actress Mary Pickford and the wealthy aesthete Gerald Murphy, who was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's character Dick Diver in "Tender Is the Night." Greenman later returned to Minneapolis and opened a fashionable studio where she turned out portraits of Minnesota notables including businessman Alfred Pillsbury and Gov. Karl Rolvaag.
Modernist but not abstract
Though labeled "modernists," none of these women ever took up abstract art. "Modernism for these women would have been Cubism, Expressionism and all the 'isms' of the early 20th century when there was a general interest in departing from 3-D illusionism and moving toward flat, decorative surfaces," L'Enfant said.
Abstraction didn't become a dominant mode until the 1950s and later. Its rise contributed to the eclipse of the reputations of many of these women, but some remained influential. Raymond taught countless sculptors at Walker Art Center's school in the 1940s. Rollins (1896-1989) was the University of Minnesota's first female art professor, started the state's first art colony (in Stillwater), and was a founder of the first women's co-op gallery (on Lake Street).
"The overarching issue is whether these are just regional artists or whether they are related to the major movements of the day," said L'Enfant. "They don't necessarily have fame or national reputations, but does that mean they're inferior to women of their generation who do? I say, no. There is amazing value and quality in their art, and it just takes dedication to bring their work to national attention."