Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Through April 5, 2015
By Jacob Feige
Peter Blume’s hyperreal paintings are at odds with the prevailing story of twentieth century painting. In Blume’s work metaphor, dream imagery, and technical virtuosity coalesce in pristine clarity reminiscent of the Northern Renaissance, each work the result of elaborate preparation. The dominant history—that painting progressed towards flatness and materiality through the mid-twentieth century—is antithetical to Blume’s own move towards pictorial depth and ornate detail in the same time period. No wonder the last retrospective of this painter’s work, who was quite famous in the 1930s and 40s, was in 1976.
By current sensibilities, Blume’s saturated color and theatrical figuration are cheesy, but to judge the paintings on that is to apply norms of more recent history to the past. Still, several early works capture a tone of distance and longing that may resonate with those wedded to the tastes of the present. Some early works have a charming flatness reminiscent of folk painting. In Vegetable Dinner (1927) hands prepare a meal as a woman looks into the distance, cigarette in hand, lost in thought. Torso with Tiger Lilly (1927) is a strangely cropped painting of flowers surrounded by a thin woman’s midsection, a sliver of landscape visible beyond the figure. The woman’s body becomes background, the flowers an oversized corsage in the center of the composition.
Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis is chronologically arranged in the Fisher Brooks Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the first room of the exhibition devoted to these early paintings, mostly from the 1920s. Rooms that follow show Blume’s commitment to fastidious painting that is too clear and saturated to be considered realism, per se, but is also too sober and structured to be Surrealism. Indeed, many of the Surrealists settled in Connecticut near the artist in the 1930s and 40s; he was careful to remain unattached to the movement. Still, many works from the early thirties on show the influence of the group, beginning with South of Scranton (1930-31), an awkwardly painted composition of high divers, a strip mine, and a seaside town below. Rather than dream imagery, the painting is evidently a travelogue of images collected while driving from his home in Pawling, NY through Pennsylvania to Charleston, SC.
The exhibition reveals much about Blume’s working process, with several studies for a single finished work frequently shown alongside it. Such is the case with South of Scranton, his obsessive control over all elements of a composition yielding subtle changes from one version to the next. Blume relished meticulous mark making in his Renaissance-inspired drawings, which often showed more maturity in his twenties than his paintings did. Beginning in the 1940s, when the artist struggled for inspiration, the drawings changed, becoming looser, darker, and more emotive. In a full-size cartoon study for Tasso’s Oak (1957-60), expressive, murky rendering leaves the final painting looking comparatively labored and restrained.
The works typical of Blume’s mature style, made from mid 1930s onward, bring so much visual lucidity to humanity’s murkiest elements—war, pain, and environmental degradation—that they often seem more a theatrical expression of the human condition than a candid reflection of it. His allegorical paintings on the evils of fascism and war, The Eternal City (1934-37) and The Rock (1945-48) surround uncanny natural and architectural forms with toiling and grieving figures, their anguish at odds with the vivid light cast down from the sky. Architectural ruin and landscape run together, difficult to distinguish.
Scattered throughout the more allegorical works are appealingly unexpected, even whimsical ones, each a respite from grandiose themes. An uncharacteristically abstract work, Key West Beach (1941) depicts a creature that seems to be half pelican, half driftwood sculpture. Charming moments of everyday life become otherworldly in The Italian Straw Hat (1952) and Hadrian’s Villa (1958).
Blume frequently worked for years on a single painting, reflecting a bygone era when one work in a prestigious exhibition could bring renown to an artist. Over his half-century of peak productivity, he produced many such ambitious works, most of them best examined singularly, not in a greater body of work. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibition consequently requires more time and focus to fully appreciate than many exhibitions of similar magnitude. The 159 works, nearly all with striking detail and complexity, could easily overwhelm viewers apt to casually absorb the general atmosphere of an artist’s work. For those willing to look closely, each of Blume’s paintings and drawings is a small world in itself. The challenge in this exhibition is to cut through the overabundance of minute clarity to savor a particular instance, hiding in plain sight until it is noticed.
Jacob Feige is Assistant Professor of Painting at the Richard Stockton College of NJ. His exhibition ‘Settlement’ was recently at Movement, Worcester, UK, and his work was included in ‘Listening In’ at the Abington Art Center, both in late 2014.