De Profundis: Olga Milles’ Drawings of the Soul

Olga Milles lived in the very depths. In her art, almost exclusively devoted to portrait painting, she sought to draw out the character from the depths of her models and to find the soul behind the façade. Using a variety of techniques including charcoal, crayon, pastel, watercolor, tempera, and oil in her work, Olga was considered an artistic prodigy and developed her talent from a young age, yet her art is largely unknown. In 1988, twenty-one years after her death, Cranbrook Art Museum hosted an exhibition in collaboration with Millesgården, Olga Milles Emerges, to exhibit examples of her art from both museums’ collections.

In the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Staffan Carlén, former Director of Millesgården, describes her as having an intuitive talent that produced factual character studies of extreme precision, with an “overwhelmingly melancholic” tone. In reading Inger Wahlöö’s account of Olga’s life, based on correspondence at Millesgården, Carlen’s interpretation of Olga’s artwork can almost be read as a profile of Olga herself:

“Sparseness of shadowed areas and stretched areas disrobe the faces and make them appear in a serious, introverted nakedness. Her efforts are primarily directed towards interpreting the character of the soul. This she did with great coloristic refinement, and with tenderness in the form. In her drawings, there is consistently a sensitive enlargement of the mouth, sometimes in interaction with the dreaming mood of the eyes, sometimes as a tension-filled contrast of unconscious sensuality.”

Staffan Carlen, Olga Milles Emerges
Print of Drawing of Carl Milles by Olga Milles, 1917. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Olga Granner in 1874 in Leibniz, Austria, she had two brothers and two sisters. She had a deep loyalty to her family, whom she visited for several months every year, except during World War II. Having been born and raised in the Catholic church, she initially aspired to become an art teacher in a convent. However, in early adulthood, Olga questioned what it meant to be disobedient to the church and broke away, while cultivating an increasingly ascetic life.

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Sketching to Jazz and Judo: the Young People’s Art Center

Did you know that Cranbrook Art Museum’s educational partnerships with surrounding communities date back over sixty years? Long before the current museum trend of interactive educational programs for youth audiences, the Academy of Art and the Junior League of Birmingham had an idea:  the Young People’s Art Center (YPAC).

Young People’s Art Center logo, from the 1962 enrollment form. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The year was 1958, and the Museum had recently changed names to the Academy of Art Galleries, shifting focus to feature more contemporary art practices. With that, came the desire to encourage young visitors to express their own artistic voices—participatory education, rather than simply art appreciation. Documenting the program’s first year, a June 1959 Detroit News Pictorial Magazine feature noted that YPAC “is fast gaining a national reputation for its lively approach to art education.”

In particular, it was Henry Booth (Academy Board of Trustees Chairman), Wallace Mitchell (Head of Galleries), and Zoltan Sepeshy (Academy Director) that approached the Junior League with a plan. In a 1957 report by Mitchell during the Center’s development phase, he states, “ The personnel of the Cranbrook Academy of Art has become increasingly aware of the growing country-wide interest in the visual arts and has long wished to more directly participate in the fostering and guiding of this interest as expressed in our community.” Seeking support from the Junior League, this “unique opportunity to bring to the children of Oakland County an integrated program in art education which concerns itself with the totality of the art experience” was green-lighted for the following year.

Children watch a judo demonstrator as part of a class exercise. Erik Strylander, photographer. From the article “Sketching to Jazz and Judo,” Detroit News Pictorial Magazine, June 28, 1959.

A perfect partnership was formed. The Academy would provide leadership, through the support of its trustees, director, and faculty; the Junior League would provide the necessary finances. Naturally, with so many talented artists on campus, there was no lack of creativity or helping hands! Junior League members were also heavily involved, providing volunteer docents to conduct gallery tours and assist with classes, both of which were located on the ground level of the Museum below the Academy Library.

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Cranbrook-LIFE

2020 marks ninety years of temporary traveling exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum. Perhaps one of the best examples that brings to life this aspect of the Museum’s programs is Cranbrook’s brief but wildly successful partnership with LIFE Magazine.

The Cranbrook-LIFE Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting opened in 1940, ten years after Cranbrook Art Museum hosted its first traveling exhibition, organized by the American Union of Decorative Artists and featuring contemporary interior design. The idea of temporary traveling exhibits at Cranbrook began the same year as the permanent collection was established by founder George G. Booth. It furthered Booth’s commitment to presenting contemporary art as foremost a learning tool for Academy of Art students. It was intended “to remind our students that art is a living thing and that the record of our times is being created from day to day by the artists of this age, and in so doing perhaps to stimulate the creative spirit among those who work here.”

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Judges examine paintings in New York, April 1940. Hansel Meith, photographer. Copyright Time Inc.

Cranbrook-LIFE was a celebration of contemporary U.S. art meant to symbolize “America’s increasing responsibility as a democratic world art center.” (Life, May 27, 1940) As such, LIFE invited sixty painters, living and working in America, to submit three paintings to be voted on by a jury of six. The painters included Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Cranbrook’s own Zoltan Sepeshy. The jury, comprised of Sepeshy, two leading art museum directors, an editor at LIFE Magazine, a representative from the Federal Works Agency Section of Fine Arts, and a well-respected American painter and educator, convened in a New York City warehouse where they spent four hours whittling down 180 submissions to the final sixty paintings shipped to Cranbrook for the show. One of these was Grant Wood’s American Gothic! Loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago, the already famous painting appears to be the only piece in the exhibition to come from another art museum.

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Opening night attendees arrive. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

If you’re at all familiar with LIFE, you may be asking yourself why a popular weekly magazine, known for its photographic general-interest stories, would make a foray like this into the art world? According to a 1940 TIME Magazine article, in the previous three years,  “the No. 1 U.S. source of popular knowledge of U.S. art has been LIFE, which has reproduced for the man-in-the-street’s weekly dime some 452 paintings (usually in full color) by U.S. artists.” Your next question might be why it was held at Cranbrook, as opposed to, say, the newly constructed Museum of Modern Art building in New York City? Florence Davies of the Detroit News may have answered that, when she wrote at the time: “Life Magazine picked Cranbrook not only because of the enchanting setting of the place as a whole, but more particularly because it found there ‘work in progress—an atmosphere of creative activity.’”

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Academy of Art students parade through the opening night gala reminding attendees of the student exhibition simultaneously on display at the Cranbrook Pavilion. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The exhibition drew an estimated 2,500 national and international visitors in the short two weeks it was on display from May 17-June 2, 1940. Because of the size of the show, it could not be held in the current museum building on Lone Pine Road and Academy Way (Eliel Saarinen’s museum building began construction during the exhibition). And, as the Academy student exhibition was currently occupying the Cranbrook Pavilion, the decision was made to utilize the Academy’s Painting Department Studios. Opening night was a festive gala. Attendees, including George and Ellen Booth, Loja and Eliel Saarinen, Edsel B. Ford, Albert Kahn, and “1,000 Detroit socialites braved wintry winds” in formal attire. (Time, June 3, 1940)

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Marianne Strengell, Charles Eames, and Richard Reinhardt. Richard A. Askew, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and during the beginning months of the War in Europe, pro-American sentiment was high, as evidenced by the placement of potted American-grown tomatoes in windowsills as decoration. According to TIME Magazine, the music for the evening was by U.S. composers and refreshments included “Rhine wine flavored to taste like U.S. new-mown hay.” (!?)

Cranbrook-LIFE marks the beginning of the Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records, which illuminate thirty-six years of temporary traveling exhibits, and are rife with names of renowned artists that have exhibited at Cranbrook throughout its history.

It’s not all in the past, though! Don’t miss Cranbrook Art Museum’s current traveling exhibition,  In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969, on view until March 8, 2020.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

The Multiple-George Theory

From my office window in Cranbrook House, I have a great view of the motor court. I can see the comings and goings of the house: coworkers rushing to meetings, facilities moving tools and tables, the busy bees of the Cranbrook House and Gardens Auxiliary at work, and visitors to the campus exploring the house and grounds.

As guests walk around finding flowers, sculptures, and fountains, I always see them step up to the locked side entrance of the house and try and figure out one of the most unusual pieces of art at Cranbrook: George Washington brandishing a flyswatter over George Booth. DSC_0523The acrylic painting, set within a blind window, shows George Booth napping on the daybed in his Still Room (those guests who’ve been on a Cranbrook House tour know the Still Room’s daybed is literally right behind this wall). Behind him is the ghostly figure of Washington, holding a copy of the July 4, 1776, Philadelphia Gazette and his swatter. It is a (not-terribly-convincing) trompe-l’œil fitted within the existing window frame. The 47×22” painting was completed in 1976 by Academy student Gregory High (MFA, Painting, 1977). George and GeorgeHenry Scripps Booth commissioned the painting while he was serving as a Cranbrook Educational Community trustee and while he was using George’s office suite for his own offices. He told the alumni magazine, the window commemorates “the long list of founders who seized opportunities that have been bequeathed to them from those who have gone before.”

Further, Henry explained that “there is at least one fly in almost every organizational ointment as well as in many of our best dreams…Those pesky flys require a decisive swat by a person of intuition and experience of historical perspective. George Washington, in a haze of tradition, plays that part of this bit of symbolic fantasy.”

Henry commissioned the painting as part of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, and it was revealed on Cranbrook’s Founders Day by George and Ellen’s three-year-old great-great-granddaughter Stephanie Booth, who was dressed in an 1867 dress belonging to Ellen.

The Cranbrook Quarterly (Fall 1976) wrote, “[the painting] could be considered one of the more unusual commemorations of the Bicentennial because it…develops the ‘multiple-George theory’ of Cranbrook’s—and the nation’s—founding.” Henry told the Quarterly that he “hoped that this window will be enjoyed by the passerby as it would be by Cranbrook’s founders if they were suddenly to come upon it and discover one of them was being spoofed.”

I can certainly attest that the painting gets a lot of looks and begs a lot of questions from the viewer. It’s one of the strangest—and most accessible—works on campus.

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Happy Holidays!

With the end of December quickly approaching, we’ve received several holiday image requests. While looking through different collections, I came across these amazing holiday cards that were made by Cranbrook Academy of Art students and sent to Margueritte Kimball (1906-1995).

Margueritte visited Cranbrook for the first time in 1941. She was introduced to Wallace Mitchell, head of the Painting Department, who examined a few of her drawings, and eventually accepted her as a student to the Academy.  She began attending classes in the summer of 1942 and, at the same time began her career as the Academy’s financial secretary — a position she held for twenty-six years.

Known by many in the Cranbrook community, Margueritte became close with students and faculty at the Academy and collected correspondence and student materials from art exhibitions throughout the years. Although she never graduated from the Academy, she did receive an honorary degree late in her life. I hope you will enjoy some of the holiday samples from her collection. Happy holidays!

Kathryn Keillor (Painting '46)

Kathryn Keillor (Painting ’46)

John Edgar Barthel (Architecture '50)

John Edgar Barthel (Architecture ’50)

Grace Smith (attended Summer courses, 1951)

Grace Smith (attended Summer courses, 1951)

Edward Novak (Design '58)

Edward Novak (Design ’58)

 

Gina Tecos, Archivist

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