From the catalog of the
Paul-Wieghardt-Retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago
Paul Wieghardt's retrospective at the Art Institute is the largest and most comprehensive assemblage of his work ever to be shown in the United States. Two years ago an exhibition of comparable size and scope was organized by the German City of Lüdenscheid, Wieghardt's birthplace. It traveled to the neighboring Westphalian communities of Hamm and Witten and in the meantime the catalog accompanying it has served Americans reasonably well as a record of the artist's career. But there is no substitute for the opportunity to view the work itself, moreover in the depth implied by the 98 paintings and drawings now hanging in the Montgomery Ward Gallery. Their range is wide and instructive: from a searching self-portrait done in1925, when Wieghardt was 28, to the large, assured Gentle Ghost Confronted a canvas completed late in 1968, shortly before his death the following year, at 72. Between these limits there is a rich variety of oils, watercolors, and drawings executed in several stylistic phases that move logically to a mature conclusion.
It is, of course, fitting that the exhibition originates in Chicago, whose art world in general and whose younger painters in particular were powerfully affected by Wieghardt for nearly a quarter of a century. He and the city owed each other a debt, and both of them paid it. Chicago provided him with a place to work in the serenity and security he had enjoyed only infrequently in the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s. After a harrowing flight from the Nazis during World War II, which carried him and his sculptress wife Nelli Bar across Siberia, Japan, the Pacific and Panama to New York, he joined the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1946. There he remained until 1963, during which time he was able to give himself sustainedly to his painting.
In turn, as a teacher he exerted an incalculable influence on several generations of local painters. At a time, the late 1940s, when American artists were struggling almost desperately to escape the genial parochialism that marked much of U.S. art before the war, Wieghardt stood out in Chicago as a European artist accomplished in and devoted to the modern international tradition. He offered the same model to younger post-war painters here that Mies van der Rohe did to architects and Moholy-Nagy to designers. Whether his students always agreed with his personal points of view on art - which he held with great conviction - they invariably recognized the authority with which he conveyed them and the high professional seriousness he brought to his work.
In short, he did much to awaken a sense of history in Chicago art. Whatever contribution the city's painters and sculptors have made to American art as a whole during the last several decades is due in no small degree to the example he set in his teaching. His students, who include such distinguished contemporaries as Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, Leon Golub, H. C. Westermann, Richard Hunt, Irving Petlin, and Arthur Okamura, stand for a wide variety of styles, a fact which bears out what all of us who studied with him knew, namely that his teaching was noteworthy more for its general level of sensibility than for any specific dogma or formula. lf there was one attitude central to it, it was a ceaseless encouragement of his students to take themselves seriously, to trust their own creative impulses.
During his Chicago years, no less than in previous phases of his career, he painted unflaggingly. Yet as an artist he shied almost compulsively from the limelight. He seems to have been more inclined to share his work with a circle of intimate friends than to display it before a larger public. Many of his own students had little if any acquaintance with his painting, and he avoided gallery affiliations almost totally. He did show, but always on his own terms, and probably with a resultant loss of the publicity on which wider renown so largely depends. lf we knew him quite well as a teacher, we knew him altogether too little as an artist.
This exhibition, then, helps to restore the balance. From the beginning to the end, Wieghardt was an artist more inclined toward subtlety of form, carefully modulated color and linear nuance, than toward the bravura image or bold expressive gesture. Though he grew up in Germany at a time when expressionism was a dominant mode among the vanguard there, his early work shows almost none of the rhetoric to which expressionism rather easily lends itself.
The teacher with whom he felt closest at the Bauhaus in Weimar was Paul Klee, that most cultivated of the central European moderns, and later at the Dresden Academy he was moved by his association with Robert Sterl, a painter of impressionist sympathies. By 1931 Wieghardt was living in Paris, where his work matured quickly, gaining an identity closer to the French tradition - Bonnard and Pascin come to mind - than to the German. The paintings from the 1930s, tender, closely orchestrated compositions of landscapes and figures, variously done in Paris, Portugal and Norway, are among the most revealing to an American eye accustomed to the simpler, larger, more nearly abstract paintings of his later years in Chicago.
Yet the exhibition also provides evidence of how much the work of his American phase depended on that of his European years. Apparently Wieghardt responded to the openness of form and bigness of scale of American post-war painting by enlarging his own formats and applying his color in brilliantly expansive areas. Close examination of his later paintings, however - not to mention the drawings, where a precise distillation of the motif is constantly apparent - shows how exacting his coloristic relationships and linear definitions remained. Restraint and finesse are never absent from his work, and these factors seem more related to the modern Parisian tradition than to the American one.
Still, the late paintings and drawings are marked by something else - by a generosity of spirit that qualifies them In the last analysis as the most maturely realized objects in the show. Painstakingly deliberate though his manner was, in life, in thought, as well as in his art, the result was a body of work notable above all for freedom and grace. With this exhibition, Wieghardt's legacy to Chicago and America is vigorously reaffirmed.