New York

Arthur B. Davies

A large number of graphics by Arthur B. Davies appeared at the Hirschl and Adler Galleries during late September and early October, together with a few of his paintings and miniature bronze sculptures. Davies is familiar as a painter and, for having been a chief organizer of the Armory Show, as a hero of the modern movement in America. When we are perfectly honest about Davies I think we would agree that his painting was uneven, and that to some extent our advocacy of it is a dialectical compensation for European ignorance of the native American modernist tradition. But ever since I first came upon F. N. Price’s handsome album The Etchings & Lithographs of Arthur B. Davies (New York and London, 1929), I have felt that his graphic work is largely above such apology and that his prints are in fact at the center of his achievement. Incidentally, it would have been helpful if Hirschl and Adler had identified the works according to Price’s catalogue raisonné, for development was difficult to see and comparisons involved an awkward retracing of what one had already looked at (in one case different states of the same print were at opposite ends of the room).

Davies had a weakness for an arty, often pseudo-Hellenic, posturing of figures that relates to Isadora Duncan. This causes more trouble in paintings, where it looks affected, than in prints, where the intimacy of the medium can grant the same impulse a more delicate satisfaction. This type of pose runs a gamut of seriousness from Maxfield Parrish to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. One isolatable strain of it involving choreographically bent, upraised arms can be found in Picasso’s pre-Cubist acrobats and in many works by Davis. The painting, Fording Song, in this exhibition, gives a good sampling of such poses—which are often as hollow as they are in Carl Milles’ lyrical but superficial sculptures. The same is true of the painting, Fantasy of the Vine, where the typical pseudo-Renaissance, cassone-panel format is an additional turnoff. Two examples of prints that suffer from the posing problem are Nocturne (1920) and Potentia (1920). One that carries off the same kind of rhetorical posturing is the drypoint Aftermath (1917), where there is a nice variation and reciprocation in the figural poses.

Davies’ attempted classicism of pose is odd when we recall that it is through their expressive directness that his woodcuts—of which there were only a few—may call Gauguin and Expressionist graphics to mind. In fact, in one print both tastes are at work, perhaps to their mutual frustration: the woodcut Sibyl (1898) is a black classicizing figure with neat, white-on-black lines, yet incongruously direct nicks of the woodblock are left in the print. In a tiny early woodcut also based on a classical theme, Daphne (1898), there is a reasonable but unexciting compromise: the gouges are in, but they are regularized in a way that looks toward Eric Gill or Rockwell Kent.

In many prints there is an obviously conscious, if sometimes bantam, attachment to Cubism. This is part of what we could call the Davies problem. Art history is so thankful to be able to demonstrate the very presence of Cubist awareness in American painting that it tends to pass over innate, analogous tendencies in favor of more conspicuous Cubist mannerisms. This line of approach buttresses Davies’ position in the pantheon of American worthies, but it may distort the picture of what he achieved. What looks like Cubism in Davies’ graphics cannot simply be written off as a European derivation (even if in a well-meaning attempt to show his sophistication) because he was laying the groundwork for it before there was such a movement: in Evening the crosshatching might suggest, say, Lyonel Feininger, but this woodcut dates from 1898. Moreover, some of Davies’ best work is the least Cubistic.

Works which do have relations to the School of Paris include Arms Up (1917), a tough and angular drypoint that is suggestive of some of Picasso’s most primitivistic early Cubist figures, and Baptism (1918). The latter has Demoiselles-type posing and may represent a shower bath, despite the fact that its title may allude to a famous print by Alphonse Le Gros (d. 1911). A drypoint on zinc called Medallion (1917) is as beautiful as it is Cubistic: three female nudes are nicely accommodated to an oval composition. In the ’20s the relation tends to be closer to diffused Parisian Cubist forms than to those developed by other Americans, Figure in Glass (1926) being a case in point. Andante (1927), a drypoint, uses the synthetic Cubist device of crossing a meandering line with a straight line so as to define alternating filled-in tonal spots.

From an international viewpoint it might appear that Davies had a dependent and undistinguished share in the radiation of modernity out of Paris. I have a hunch, however, that the Parisian avant-garde supplied but one approach among others for him, as though he were using it rather than let it use him disadvantageously. The lithograph, Silenus (1921), has four nudes in a rhythmic chain, not unlike Matisse’s dancers. Yet the group is, by comparison, unexpectedly spatial, gathered into a ring that defines a compact area in the plane, despite the fact that the print has a decidedly horizontal setup with plenty of room for the figures to spread into. Davies here may simply have liked the idea of figural volume and depth playing against the tangible flatness of the block impression. In the lithograph and aquatint, Men in Agony (1921), of the same year, there is an array of separate bodies in contorted postures; flattening the figures could have produced a result reminiscent of Gauguin. Obviously Davies was capable of handling figure compositions with more assertive planarity than these have when he wanted to.

Support for the idea of his active independence comes from some remarkable prints which relate to the Symbolist, Redon-like tendency that had already manifested itself in Davies’ painting several years before he brought examples of Redon’s work to the United States for the Armory Show; Cupid and Psyche (1927) is an example. In the lithograph La Provence (1924) there is an effect of waxy, plastic substantiality in the crayon line that resembles prints by Vlaminck. Whether all this is inconsistency or versatility depends upon how you want to see it. At any rate, among his various modes Davies managed to come up with one that has a startling effect of contemporaneity. The use of soft-ground etching and aquatint in Pleiades (1919) results in a spread of independent, patchlike areas that is comparable, for instance, to David Hockney, as Cupid and Psyche might seem to be in a different way.

If Davies as a painter is all too readily pigeonholed, his prints reach out in many directions. There are dull ones, but many that are so accomplished that we should be obliged to take his printmaking into account when we consider him as—more than a hero of the American front—an artist of high rank.

Joseph Masheck