In the world of art, the spotlight of rediscovery sometimes shines in the unlikeliest places.
Take the case of Albert Bloch. The Missouri-born artist of German descent was, for a period of about eight years near the turn of the century, at the forefront of the development of modern art in Germany, exhibiting his paintings alongside such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso. Arthur Jerome Eddy, one of the foremost collectors of early modern art, considered Bloch the major American artist working in Europe at the time. Yet, today he is virtually unknown.
An exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., attempts to bring Albert Bloch out from obscurity and make better known his contribution to modern art. Entitled "Albert Bloch: the American Blue Rider," the show consists of about 80 paintings and works on paper, spanning the artist's career from his early days as an illustrator in St. Louis, to his later paintings, executed in his attic studio in Lawrence, Kan., where he lived for the last four decades of his life.
"We're accustomed to thinking that all the major American artists are known at this point," says Henry Adams, co-curator of the exhibition, who thinks this is a rare example of a major artist resurfacing. "We haven't had a chance to look at Bloch's work as a whole. This is really the first truly serious show of his work. I think that Bloch ranks with just about any of the major American modernists."
If Albert Bloch has any name recognition, it has come through his membership in Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider), an international group of artists working in Munich between 1911 and 1914. Bloch had moved to Munich in 1909 after four successful years producing caricatures, political cartoons, and cover illustrations - and occasional reviews and stories - for the Mirror, an adventurous weekly magazine that published ground-breaking work by controversial American authors. The Blue Rider was formed by Kandinsky and Marc, leaders of the German avant-garde. The group, of whom Bloch was the only American, produced two exhibitions and books, which shaped seminal aspects of 20th-century art.
Though short-lived, the Blue Rider was an extraordinarily influential group, "the most important artists association in Germany at the beginning of the century," according to Annegret Hoberg, curator at the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich and co-curator of the Nelson-Atkins exhibition.
The first Blue Rider show, in 1911, was a landmark, one of the two or three most important exhibitions in this century. It was the first international exhibit of modern art outside of France and the first to include Russian, American, French, and German artists. The bold outlines, non-naturalistic colors, and simplified forms of the Blue Rider paintings were radical forms of expression at a time when academic painting was the norm, and the show received harsh criticism initially.
Bloch had six paintings in the first Blue Rider exhibition; three of those - "Procession of the Cross," "The Three Pierrots No. 2," and "Harlequinade," all done in 1911 - are in the Kansas City show. "The Three Pierrots No. 2" has never been shown in the United States. Harlequins, clowns, acrobats, and other figures from the commedia dell'arte dominated Bloch's work in Germany, along with paintings of religious themes.
"It's amazing that an American from St. Louis was right in the middle of the most exciting thing that was going on in the 20th century," says Dr. Adams. "He just sort of walked into it. Bloch was more of a participant in a major artistic movement than just about any other American artist you can think of."
Bloch contributed to the second (and last) Blue Rider exhibition, in 1912. He exhibited in every major show of modern art in Germany from then until the collapse of Germany during World War I, which forced him to return permanently to the US in 1920.
Then Bloch started his disappearing act. He had a large one-man show at the Daniel Gallery in New York in 1921, which turned out to be the last commercial show of his lifetime. He taught for a year in Chicago, then, in 1923, accepted a position at the University of Kansas in Lawrence as a professor and head of the Department of Drawing and Painting. He taught there until he retired in 1947, and he continued to live and work in Lawrence until his death in 1961.
While in Kansas, Bloch's interest in religious and mystical themes came to the fore. His preoccupation with his own spiritual quest is evident in paintings like "Blind Man" (1942) and "The Blue Bough" (1952). It was during this period that white became an important part of the artist's pallet, and paintings like "Winter in the Dead Wood" (1934-1938) show how the artist could make white a dominant color, even in a very melancholy work.
Although he continued to paint, Bloch deliberately withdrew from the art world during his years in Lawrence. He never had a commercial exhibition after 1921, seldom showed his work at all, and never capitalized on his past association with Kandinsky, Marc, and the Blue Rider.
"Largely, it was Bloch's own willfulness that pulled him out of history," says Adams. He also noted that Bloch was essentially a German Expressionist at heart, and German painters are generally less well known in America than French painters, contributing to Bloch's neglect. "I think if he had been associated with Picasso, no matter how hard he tried to hide his trail, someone would have tracked him down."
*'Albert Bloch: the American Blue Rider' remains at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City through March 16. The exhibition then travels to the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich (April 16-June 29) and the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington (Oct. 3-Dec. 7).