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Baltimore Museum of Art mounts exhibit of 20th-century avant-garde painter Max Weber

Baltimore helped the modernist painter forge a national reputation in 1915. Today, 98 years later, this could be the city where he begins his comeback.

By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

4:40 PM EDT, March 22, 2013

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Baltimore helped the avant-garde painter Max Weber forge a national reputation in 1915. Now, nearly 100 years later, this could be the city where the late artist begins his long-overdue comeback.

It's not that critics and curators are unfamiliar with the Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised painter's work. As a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art makes clear, Weber has long been considered one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century.

But, at the peak of his career, Weber was a bona fide celebrity, with spreads in "Time," "Life," "Look" and 'The Saturday Evening Post."

He palled around in Paris with such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein, and formed a close friendship with Henri Rousseau. In 1930, he was the first American artist honored with a solo exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

His impact extended not just to the painter Mark Rothko — one of Weber's early students — but to early 20th-century American photographers.

"He was a household name, and he was everywhere," says Percy North, the guest curator for the exhibit, "Max Weber: Bringing Paris to New York."

"He really was a rock star," Percy says."But in 1949, Jackson Pollock arrived on the scene, and the only thing anyone was talking about after that was abstract expressionism. Today, only art world insiders know who Weber is."

She's attempting to raise his profile by mounting an exhibit that focuses on Weber's formative years, and that includes about two dozen of his works — paintings, drawings and the odd sculpture or photograph.

Also on view are creations by the seminal figures who influenced Weber, from Paul Cezanne's tilted planes to Toulouse-Lautrec, who shared with his young acolyte a capacity for creating a single, fluid outline that captures an entire personality.

The show makes it clear that Weber wasn't an innovator on the level of his more illustrious contemporaries. He didn't single-handedly take art in a bold new direction, though the sense of motion that he brought to his Cubist compositions was all his own.

But, Weber had an almost uncanny gift for recognizing genius when he saw it, whether he was being inspired by Cubist experiments with three-dimensional shapes or by the exaggerated, geometrical features found in African ceremonial masks. When Weber returned from his European travels in 1909, he brought with him canvases by Picasso and Rousseau — the first paintings by these artists ever seen in the United States.

"He was exceptionally perceptive," says North, a Stevenson resident, Montgomery College art professor and the world's foremost authority on Weber.

"He had a sense that art was being made that was different than anything that had come before. He absorbed the lessons he's learned in Europe into his own expressive personal style, and introduced an American audience to new aesthetic concepts that reflected the spirit of modern times."

The exhibit is divided into two rooms.

In the first, visitors will find the paintings that Weber created when he was in Paris between 1905 and 1909. These works signal the artist's gradual departure from representational art to a freer style that was rooted not in life but in the artist's imagination.

The second room contains works that Weber created in New York between 1909 and 1920, when he was instrumental in helping ground-breaking artistic ideas establish a toehold on American soil.

The focus exhibit is a perfect fit for the BMA, according to Jay Fisher, the museum's deputy director of curatorial affairs — and only partly because philanthropists Claribel and Etta Cone collected Weber's work. (The Baltimore museum owns 17 of Weber's paintings and drawings.)

The Baltimore institution has in many ways built its reputation around its holdings of Matisse, and Weber was not only one of the older master's earliest pupils, he also was a friend.

"Because we have one of the great Matisse collections in the world, we have a responsibility to explore all aspects of his art," says Fisher. "This exhibit enables us to take a focused look on what Matisse's influence might have been as a teacher in his own academy. Max Weber was the most prominent of the artists who were studying with Matisse, and he was certainly the most influential."

It was Weber who was the first to grasp that the Cubist innovations of Picasso and Georges Braque were even more suited to urban America than they were to a city such as Paris, where the style was actually pioneered.

Weber understood in a way that no one else quite did that the frantic cacophony of lines and triangles and half-circles depicted in his 1913 oil painting "Interior of the Fourth Dimension" reflected something essential about life in U.S. cities, which prided themselves on their technological sophistication, their skylines made up of rectangular-shaped high-rises, and their gleaming, cylindrical trains. Unlike Europe, America's gaze was fixed firmly on the future.

"Max Weber was trying to represent the modern world in a new way," North says. "He developed a personal style that evoked the energy, dynamism and excitement of city life. That's what really grabs me about his work."

And in a 1909 painting such as "Burlesque #2" the artist couldn't have trumpeted his intentions any more clearly.

As North points out, the painting combines elements as disparate as Toulouse-Lautrec's subject matter, Cubism's angular forms, Fauvism's deliberately unnatural colors and the oversized eyes of an African mask. But, it's the American flag in the background that proclaims almost defiantly that this is an American scene, painted by an American artist.

Not that Weber had an easy time of it. His early shows weren't exactly greeted with open arms.

A 1909 painting, now titled "Burlesque #1," was selected to illustrate the 1910 April Fools edition of the New York World because as far as the editors were concerned, the painting was a joke.

The following year, the Evening Mail reviewed Weber's first solo show and said of the canvases: "Their ugliness is appalling."

An Evening World reviewer opined: "Nature alone [never] made anybody so bad an artist. … Such grotesquerie could only be acquired by long and perverse practice."

But Weber was undeterred. The reception to his 1915 solo show in New York was markedly less hostile, and the artist came to consider it his first victory.

Later that year, Weber reached another turning point when he ventured outside Manhattan for the first time. He brought his work to the Jones Gallery in Baltimore — and enjoyed his first mainstream success.

According to North, "A news clipping described the show as 'the most exciting art event of the season,' and said that crowds were 'flocking to see it.' " .

From then on, the artist's reputation grew steadily, and by the middle of the 1920s, he was famous. He returned to visit the Baltimore Museum of Art at least three times during his career: in 1942, 1948 and 1958.

Weber remained at the pinnacle of the American art world until 1949, when the brilliant, volatile Pollock burst upon the scene with his drip paintings.

"By 1950, Max Weber was still pretty hot," North says. "By 1960, he was over. All of the early modernists were."

Recently, however, she has detected an uptick of interest in Weber's vision. In the past 10 months, shows of his work have been held in New York and Oklahoma.

"I hope people who come to see these exhibits will start to appreciate him again," North says. "I hope they'll realize his breadth and how significant his impact was on the American art scene."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Max Weber: Bringing Paris to New York" is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art at N. Charles and 31st Streets through June 23. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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