“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” - John F. Kennedy
Albert Bloch (1882-1961) was an American artist, born in St. Louis, Missouri, of Czechoslovakian and German-Jewish ancestry. He spent his early life in the Midwest, first He initially earned a living from commercial art, working between 1905 and 1908 as a caricaturist and illustrator for William Marion Reedy’s literary and political weekly “The Mirror”. Reedy noticed Bloch’s talent, and provided him with a monthly stipend to study abroad.
At the beginning of 1909, Bloch sailed for Europe and between 1909 and 1921, Bloch lived and worked mainly in Germany, making brief visits to other countries in Europe and to America. As he spoke German, he decides to settle in Munich, which was then a thriving art center. Reedy pressed Bloch to attend classes at the Royal Bavarian Academy in Munich, however, Bloch never enrolled, preferring instead to take lessons from painters working in the academic style outside the academy.
Initially Bloch displayed little interest in the modern art revolution that was sweeping through Europe around the turn of the century, but a 1910 trip to Paris exposed him to the work of Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Odilon Redon. The following year, he saw a catalogue of the second exhibition of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (the New Arts’ Union of Munich), which included reproductions of works by, among others, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Georges Rouault, and Wassily Kandinsky. Bloch identified with these artists.
He soon met Kandinsky and Franz Marc, both of whom invited him to participate in the first exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group of modernist artists who broke away from Neue Künstlervereinigung. With his contribution of six canvases, Bloch was the only American represented in the show, which was held in December 1911 at Munich’s Thannhauser Gallery. The Blaue Reiter artists had no formal manifesto, but they shared a desire to express emotional and spiritual truth through painting and, in particular, through symbolic use of color. The group, active from 1911 to 1914, represents one current in the broader expressionist impulse that spread through Germany and beyond in the first half of the twentieth century.
Bloch established a successful career in Germany and remained there, exhibiting his work through World War I. In 1912, he showed at the second Blaue Reiter exhibition, and he was included in the 1912 Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne, the most famous exhibition of modernism in Europe at that time. The only painting by Bloch accepted for this show was “The Duel”, a 1912 painting that recalls Edvard Munch’s work. That same year, Bloch showed at Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin, participating in a small exhibition that featured paintings rejected from the Sonderbund exhibit. Walden, one of the foremost proponents of modernism in Europe, fashioned this 1912 exhibition as a protest against the Sonderbund show that, he believed, had not adequately represented members of the Blaue Reiter group.
Bloch’s fame now reached America. Arthur Jerome Eddy, the Chicago collector and tireless promoter of modernism, began buying Bloch’s paintings at Kandinsky’s recommendation, and eventually added more than 25 of Bloch’s works to his collection. In 1915, Eddy’s collection of paintings by Bloch was the basis of a one-man show at the Art Institute of Chicago; the exhibition traveled to the St. Louis Art Museum.
In 1921, Bloch returned to the United States, greatly disappointed with what Germany had become. He lived in the USA until his death in 1961. To support himself, as he had little money, Bloch decided to become an art teacher. His first position began in 1922 at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, but lasted only one year. From 1923 until his retirement in 1947, Bloch was Professor and Head of the Department of Drawing and Painting at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.
Bloch frequently chose biblical subject matter or sweeping emotional themes of anguish or exaltation. Wishing to remain behind the American art scene and unwilling to trade on his European connections, Bloch and his work faded from public view. Over time, Bloch’s reticence about discussing his former affiliation with the Blaue Reiter artists obscured his early contributions to an important passage in the history of art. Throughout his career, Bloch destroyed any paintings that, from his point of view, were unsuccessful. Regrettably, many more early works in German collections were destroyed in the bombings of World War II, while others were banished to Switzerland by the Nazis as “degenerate art.” Extant examples of his work from this early period are rare and valuable artistic documents.
The painting above is his “Three Pierrots and Harlequin” of 1914. While the characters of Commedia dell’ Arte are clearly identifiable, the darkness of the first World War can be discerned in the battleground-like setting which the figures populate. Exploding spheres of colour illuminate the environs eerily and Harlequin is in full flight, seemingly running to escape the sinister trio of Pierrots. This is a powerful and disturbing work making us privy to the artist’s state of mind in the historic context of his life at the time it was painted.
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