In the grand sky-lit gallery of Hill House, the Summit Avenue mansion of St. Paul railroad magnate James J. Hill, hang more than 50 early 20th-century etchings, lithographs and screen prints that vividly illustrate the surprisingly cosmopolitan nature of Minnesota and its artistic community a century ago. Hill himself preferred French landscapes and allegorical vignettes of ancient deities romping nude in verdant forests, but he made his money by investing in the raw-boned towns and fledgling industries depicted in this show, which is drawn from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. It runs through July 12.
Etchings, woodcuts and other prints are technically demanding art forms that require training and equipment early Minnesota artists rarely encountered outside the fledgling art academies of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Back then, artists found encouragement at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Minnesota State Fair, which regularly staged exhibits and awarded print prizes. Artists studied in New York and Europe, then returned home to spread the word about Whistler's etchings and Japanese wood-block techniques. Even the local newspapers took up the cause, reviewing regional and national exhibitions and devoting "a surprising amount of coverage to the visual arts," writes the late Robert L. Crump in "Minnesota Prints and Printmakers: 1900-1945" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $49.95), a well-researched and engaging book that accompanies the show.
The Hill show, smartly curated by Brian Szott of the Historical Society, is hung salon-style in rows two and three deep. It follows a loose chronology, from monochrome urban vignettes of the early 1900s through subtly colored screen prints of the 1940s. Brief biographies summarize the lives of nearly forgotten talents such as muralist David T. Workman (1884-1972) who was born in Wahpeton, Dakota Territory, studied in England and exhibited with international artists in San Francisco, Chicago and the Twin Cities. A moody 1915 etching of a French village in moonlight hints at his world travels.
Minnesota scenes convey the rustic, pioneering quality of life a century ago. George Resler's etching "Swede Hollow" offers an unsentimental account of an immigrant shantytown in St. Paul's East Side. Gilbert Fletcher documents frontier life in bold woodcuts of a hay wagon in a farmyard and a gnarled tree beside a rough-hewn rail fence. Intimate vignettes by Resler, S.C. Burton and others show Minneapolis in the 1920s when barges plied the Mississippi, smokestacks belched above the skyline and the Stone Arch Bridge was an important industrial link. Knut Heldner, Louis Orr, Alexander Masley and others do the same for the Duluth waterfront and a St. Croix River town.
By the 1930s and '40s, color and new expressive styles appeared. Clem Haupers introduces feverish expressionism to the 1936 landscape titled "Pine County Farm," in which a startled-looking white house crouches behind long blue grass at the end of a pink drive beneath a stormy sky. In a 1941 mural design for a St. Paul high school, Miriam Ibling renders an "Orchestra" as a jazzy ensemble virtually dancing on a blue scrim. The deprivations of the Great Depression underscore the pathos of the "Nine Men" Harry Gottlieb shows crouching, homeless, by a bonfire at the bleak edge of a city. But humor and high spirits are here, too, in Elizabeth Olds' 1940 silk-screen of "Three Men and a Fish" in a tippy boat, and Marvel Midtby's 1940 rendition of a stylish woman with sexy "Red Hair."
As a snapshot of the state from 1900 to 1945, "Minnesota Print" delivers both history and art with satisfying zeal.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431