27 September 2016

Notes From the Art Of The Print: Fannie Hillsmith

It sounds like a dream come true, and it is.  When a wealthy private university with several art galleries and a collection of 45,000 works of art decides to offer a Humanities  course to the general public at severely reduced tuition, You can believe I was right there to enroll.  Yes, a course in art history includes lectures and slides and class discussion.  But this class offers special opportunities.  Firstly is that each week after we have looked at slides of Rembrandt, Durer, Goya, and Piranesi - so far - we adjourn to the Schaefer Gallery's print room to examine (feast our eyes) on the real things.  Also, rather than writing a term paper, we attended a national  print fair this past weekend and each of us will recommend a print for the gallery to purchase, to be paid for with our tuition.

My first choice (first, only in the order of my posts here) is Garden Plan (1946) by Fannie Hillsmith, a work she created during her first year at Atelier 17, an artists' workshop in Greenwich Village.  Hillsmith went on to make other versions, adding abstract washes of color in green and purple overlaid on this structure.  The title is straightforward: it is the plan Hillsmith designed for her small city garden, as seen from a window above - a birds' eye view.  On second look, what emerges is Hillsmith's witty take on plant life, her use of exclamatory lines familiar from New Yorker cartoons. 

A taste for Cubism  emerged during the four years at Atelier 17, years where she worked side by side with Joan Mrio, Yves Tanguay, Jacques Lipschitz and other emigres from  A Europe at war.  Hillmsith took the fractured planes of Juan Gris, a favorite artist, and turned them in American images, with tongue in cheek.  A folded newspaper was renamed the New York Times and the wine bottle, a standard feature of Parisian cafe scenes, was replaced by an earthenware jug (in Molasses Jug, 1949) or sometimes a martini glass.

Atelier 17 had been the French brainchild of an English artist Stanley William Hayter.   Hayter set up shop on the Left bank in 1927, attracting Picasso, Mrio, Changall, and other artistic luminaries of the day to his workshop.  As a master of etching and engraving Hayter was able to turn their drawings into prints, with all the potential, aesthetic and commercial, that implied.  

Moving the school to New York in 1940 to escape the war, Hayter established himself with a new generation of artists.   Ninety-one of the approximately two hundred artists who enrolled there were women, making Ateleier 17 unusually supportive to women.   What the Atelier offered women was a place to experiment with abstraction and also personal imagery, away from the muscular postwar world of Abstract Expressionism.    Names like Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko may be more familiar to us but  Hayter would look back to the experience and say that the work of these famous men was a lot less impressive that that of the women.  Indeed, the work of women like Fannie Hillsmith pointed toward the flowering of women artists in the 1970s and beyond.

Fannie Hill Smith was born in Boston in 1911; her grandfather Frank Hill Smith, a painter, had been one of the founders of the Boston Museum School, where Fannie studied painting for four years.  She changed the spellling of her last name to Hillsmith, to avoid the association between her name and the 18th century erotic novel Fanny Hill.  After Graduation, she moved to New York where she gravitated to the Art Students League.   In New York, Hillsmith encountered avant garde art - and she liked what she saw.  Even before she joined Atelier 17, she had exhibited her work at Peggy Guggenheim's Art Of This Century Gallery on West 57th Street.  Her career has long and productive; she continued painting up until a few months befor her death at the age of ninety-six in 2007.

1. Fannie Hillsmith - Garden Plan, 1946, intaglio print, Susan Teller Gallery, New York City &  Jersey City.
2. Fannie Hillsmith - The Little Table, 1950, oil/tempura and sand on walnut,  private collection
3. Fannie Hillsmith - Molasses Jug, 1949, oil painting, Susan Teller Gallery.

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