20th Century Raphael

Like his namesake, Raphael Soyer has championed the human form. It’s a lonely job.

The earliest work in the Hirshhorn Museum’s new exhibition on Raphael Soyer dates from 1917: an etching of his father printed on a small press on the family’s South Bronx kitchen table. From these Russian-immigrant beginnings, the artist’s brush and pencil went on to explore the frontiers of American art—yet he always returned for his subject to the world he knew best, the streets and people of New York City.

The exhibition actually encompasses two shows, celebrating Soyer the painter and Soyer the printmaker. Soyer donated his life’s work in prints to the Hirshhorn in 1981. That sparked this unusual tribute, in museum director Abram Lerner’s words, to “the flowering vigor and painterly ease” of the artist’s creations.

The Hirshhorn shows represent only the latest in a career of laurels most artists would gladly rest on: a dazzling retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art; a mono-graph penned by a revered art historian, Lloyd Goodrich; a critically acclaimed autobiography, Diary of an Artist; lionization in museum collections around the world. But the eighty-two-year story of Raphael Soyer has some chapters yet to be written.

Born on Christmas Day 1899, in the Czarist town of Borisoglebsk, Raphael Soyer and his identical twin, Moses, were weaned on their father’s drawings of Cossacks on galloping horses, copying the ornate costumes and glinting hoofs. But their father’s intellectual passion for art, literature, and open dialogue did not sit well with the cast-iron, anti-Semitic rule of the provincial authorities. The Soyers were forced into exile in 1912. They sailed steerage class to America.

Raphael, Moses, and their younger brother, Isaac, continued their sibling rivalry with stubby lead pencils and dreamed of becoming great artists from the safe harbor of their new home on the northern cusp of Manhattan. The Bronx was rustic in those days, and the Soyer brothers painted the lush gardens that dotted the immigrant neighborhoods. They soon learned the meandering route to the Metropoli-tan Museum.

Between teaching Hebrew and moonlighting as a writer for the flourishing Yiddish press, Abraham Soyer barely made ends meet for his wife, Beyla, and their six children. That economic reality eventually forced the boys to drop out of high school and pursue an endless array of low-paying odd jobs, punctuated by free evening art classes at the Cooper Union. In the fall of 1918, young Raphael entered the free school of the National Academy of Design. For Raphael, shy, small of stature, thickly accented, and soft spoken, the easel and the sketchbook became the primary voice.

Chaim Gross, figurative sculptor, has been a life-long friend and colleague of Raphael Soyer (both artists have been exclusively represented by Bella Fishko’s Forum Gallery since it opened in 1961). “I met the Soyers in 1921, a month after I came to this country,” he recalls. “On Sundays, Raphael and I would ride our bicycles out to Pelham Bay and paint watercolors. Nobody sold anything in those days. We were very poor. When Raphael had his own studio, I’d often go over and find him cutting up one of his canvasses and throwing out the pans he didn’t like. Many times he’d say to me, ‘Okay, take it.’ ”

One of Soyer’s important early paintings, The Dancing Lesson (1926), hangs in Gross’ home. A clumsy-footed young man with startled eyes (brother Moses) is firmly gripped by a relaxed young worn. (sister Fanny), and the couple somehow floats across the flower-bordered living room rug. Behind the young dancers, a slouching boy (brother Isaac) plays harmonica under the benign gaze of a rubber plant. A stout woman (mother Beyla), ensconced in a substantial rocker, looks off into the distance, Yiddish newspaper folded on her ample lap. The painting clicks with a grandfather-clock precision; you can almost hear the wood-planked floor groan.

In 1928, Soyer tucked that painting, snapped in newsprint, under his arm and brought it to a famous American art dealer, Charles Daniel. Soyer sought out Daniel on the advice of his teacher, Guy Pene Du Bois. Impressed with the canvas, Daniel instructed Soyer to return when he had a dozen of like quality and he would give him a show. A year later, Raphael Soyer, no longer confined to steerage class, had a one-man show in the penthouse of the Daniel Gallery on Madison Avenue.

“I painted a lot of street scenes in those early days,” Soyer recalls. Balanced on the edge of an ancient, straight-backed chair, the bespectacled artist rests his chin on an upraised palm. “My first studio was on the Lower East Side, on Corlears Hook Point. I paid $20 a month. I would go out with my easel and paint box and go right into the middle of the street. They were free from traffic and not choked up by cars. There was a beautiful sense of perspec-tive, of space. But New York has become inac-cessible. I can’t stand in the middle of the street anymore. One becomes older. You have to bring the world into your studio. That’s what I’ve done. I paint street scenes today with many people. I paint them here.”

“Here” is a high-ceilinged, no-frills studio with three large, frosted windows admitting northern light. Small, scarred, paint-spattered tables support tubes of oil paint, bottles of rectified turpentine and linseed oil. A tray of pastels forms a musty still life on a windowsill brightened by a small bouquet of yellow daffodils. Two large easels stand sentinel. Stacks of paintings lean against each other like a platoon of folding chairs, showing only their backsides. Drawings by George Grosz, a caricature of Soyer by David Levine, a crayoned astrological chart of the artist by the poet Gregory Corso, and a bevy of small paintings and sketches pockmark the gray walls. The real artillery,’ in the studio is a simple, blue-striped cot sunk in an antique iron frame that has cradled a bewildering cast of posing women.

“When you become older, you become a little more flamboyant. When you’re young, you’re very reserved. Look at the paintings of Matisse and Degas. The older they get, the more colorful they become.” In midsentence Soyer leaves his chair and pulls a large canvas out of a shady corner to illustrate his point: young woman with dark hair and luminous ebony eyes reclines on the lumpy, bare mattress. One long, blue-jeaned leg carelessly crosses the other. Her gaze swims in a brush-stroked reflecting pool of melancholia. The isolated intimacy projected on the canvas is unnerving. Who is she? What is she thinking? Anticipating the half-formed questions, Soyer responds with a touch of hubris: “I know almost all of their secrets after a while.”

Throughout his long career, Soyer has also panted, drawn, and etched his self-portrait, creating a chronicle of his emotional and artistic struggles. In Self-Portrait, 1920, he strikes a slightly belligerent pose, a strategically placed cigarette dangling from his lips. A youthful bravado emanates from the finely cross-hatched lines. Self-Portrait, 1969 was the last lithograph Soyer executed of his can image. The artist’s eyes, a bit sunken, slightly fatigued, mask an interior bedrock of strength and resolve. The picture is moody, sharp with the cross-currents of a Giacometti and a dash of Rembrandt. Here is a face that has weathered the triumphs and setbacks of a tumultuous century.

The Great Depression swallowed up Soyer’s successful one-man show at the Daniel Gallery in 1929. Charles Daniel closed up shop and Raphael Soyer returned to the mean streets of the Bowery and Union Square to paint the faces of the unemployed. Never comfortable with the sticky label of “social realism,” Soyer has always maintained he just “paints what’s around me.” On one of those street expeditions he noticed a shabby character “fishing” through a subway grating. With moist chewing gum for bait, Walter Broe patiently angled for lost change. Soyer painted this scene and invited the down-and-out old man to be a model. Broe appears in many Soyer street scenes of the 1930s and became a caretaker for the artist’s studio. During the Depression, many a homeless model, young and old, spent the night on Soyer’s studio cot.

The young artist’s compassion spilled over into the political arena. He joined the John Reed Club, founded in 1929 “to develop revolutionary art and literature.” Soyer attended the twice-weekly lectures armed with a sketchbook and an open mind. Dues were twenty-five cents a month. He heard Lewis Nlumford deliver a slide talk on the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco. He began to teach at the club’s art school on Sixth Avenue. He sketched another Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and marched in protest at Rockefeller Center when Rivera’s commissioned work was destroyed by the Rockefeller family because it brashly depicted Lenin and Trotsky. Gradually, the impressionable Soyer emerged from his isolation. He married Rebecca Letz on February 8, 1931.

The jarring global events of the 1930s sent waves of change through American art. Non-objective painting arrived with boatloads of European expatriates docking in New York and spreading Bauhaus gospel and the riveting geometric lines of Mondrian. Soyer never stepped foot in the abstract camp and has remained an avowed realist through thick and thin. It got very this very quickly.

Soyer plunged into the 1940s with a huge one-man show at the newly organized Associ-ated American Artists gallery. One section of the exhibit, titled “My Contemporaries and Elders,” consisted of twenty-three portraits of artists. Marsden Hartley became furious when Soyer decided to keep Hartley’s puckered, dentureless mouth in the picture even after Hartley brought a new pair of dentures to the studio for a revision. Joseph Stella applauded Soyer’s deftness in “capturing” his substantial girth, and always taciturn Edward Hopper sent Soyer a letter in his spare, calligraphic prose.

The theme of “contemporaries and elders” stuck. As evident in the 1948 oil, My Friends (his most ambitious picture of that decade), it combines the artist’s signature elements of portraiture, classical art-history paraphrasing, and probing self-portrait. Although Hirshhorn director Lerner comments, “It just didn’t spark,” the painting was a launching pad for Soyer’s mature work.

“I go with the camp of Titian and Degas.”

While abstract expressionism engulfed the New York gallery scene after the war, Soyer and a distinguished band of figurative artists formed a magazine titled Reality, A Journal of Artists’ Opinion. Soyer recalls in Diary of an Artist (New Republic Books, 1977): “We did not foresee the furious reaction our little publication would arouse on the part of the Museum of Modern Art, the critics, and other art publications. The Museum sent a letter by messenger to the members of our editorial board in which was implicit a warning against Communist influences. In reply, in the second issue of Reality (1954), we expressed our disappointment ‘in our enemies—we would expect issue to be taken with us on a higher level than proved to be the case.’ ”

There is a bittersweet irony in the Hirshhorn’s decision to install Soyer’s double-barreled exhibition hot on the heels of “De Stijl: 1917-1931,” a show eulogizing the utopian Dutch movement. Their gods were the geometric forms and pure, primary colors that catapulted Piet Mondrian to art-world glory. Soyer has always considered Mondrian “a decorator, pure and simple.” Mondrian’s ultimate reality is galaxies away from Soyer’s, for Soyer is in love with the human figure.

Soyer spent years combing the treasure troves of European museums and churches to study the figure techniques of the masters. “When I looked at Caravaggio’s painting in the Church of San Luigi Francesci in Rome,” Soyer wrote, “I compared it to Cezanne’s Card Players, to the detriment of Cezanne. For after all my visits to the museums my head has become a veritable museum itself, stacked with a multitude of paintings, from all places and all times, and although it may be historically incorrect to do so, I constantly juxtapose them and compare them.”

Soyer’s iconography of women and artists, his preference for “street theater” over Broad-way, and his melancholy painterly duel with alienation place him on a special pedestal of realism. The Russian poetry he loves to read shapes his incorrigibly romantic nature. While Degas, Courbet, Delacroix, and Rembrandt dominate his Olympian roster, Soyer has championed the American painter Thomas Eakins in his extraordinary Homage—the crown jewel of the Hirshhorn exhibition.

From Walter Broe’s ravaged countenance of the 1930s to the “haute punk” fashions of the 1980s on the gentrified Upper West Side, Soyer, like a Damon Runyon with canvas, has chronicled the island of Manhattan. The young women who pose in his pictures become a portrait of changing times: In the 1930s they would fit like a kid glove in the stories of Dorothy Parker; Soyer’s women of the 1980s, with their blue jeans, leotards, and camera bags, seem straight out of Ann Beattie.

Soyer, too, has felt the rush of time. In Portraits at a Party (1974), he paints a Maginot Line of youth and aging by exiling himself and his two brothers, Moses and Isaac, as corner wallflowers. The three brothers, gray headed and slightly stooped, look towards the main group of younger artists headed by Philip Pearlstein. The trio in gray is wrenched from the main body; the younger artists have their backs turned to their elders.

“I feel that some artists need long lives to fulfill themselves,” murmurs Soyer, opening a deep cabinet drawer jammed with sketch-books. “Some artists like can Gogh and Modigliani fulfilled themselves quickly. I go with the former camp of Titian and Degas.”

In 1976, Raphael’s twin brother, Moses, died in front of his easel. His last words, according to Raphael Soyer, were addressed to the young dancer posing for him: “Phoebe, don’t frown.”

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