Models and Muses: Max Weber and the Figure

The first major exhibition of Max Weber’s art in over twenty years is underway at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over 50 works have been brought together from eight private collections and 20 institutions in this detailed study.
Entitled Models and Muses: Max Weber and the Figure, the show surveys how the Russian-born American contributed to the explosion of creativity in the US at the turn of the twentieth century, as the country’s artists began to embrace modernism.
Europe was already enjoying a fervent period of wondrous and innovative art, as Weber discovered during his four-year stay in Paris between 1905 and 1908. Here, he familiarised himself with the work of trailblazers like Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, to name but a few.
What is distinct about this exhibition is that it chooses to explore Weber’s central role in bringing the spirit of European modernism to America through the “lens of figure”.
This is achieved chronologically, which helps to put into context how his paintings of people evolved through key periods of history. The museum has therefore divided the show into six areas: The Influences of Paris; Dynamic Movement and Performance; Intimate Interiors and Jewish Themes; The Melancholic Muse; Social Commentary and Labour Themes; and Figurative Expressionism.
There are many themes that can be identified, motifs that Weber couldn’t escape from. These included bathers amidst the natural world, abstract dancers, women in interiors and refugees. Their stories directly fed into how he constructed his paintings, giving him fuel for experimentation.
He underwent massive transformations throughout his long and illustrious 50-year career, sometimes leading the change and sometimes mirroring it, inspired and transfixed by the brilliance of the avant-garde.
“This exhibition celebrates how Weber artfully moved abstract painting forward, transforming a traditionally naturalistic genre –the figure- into a vital force for change,” the Philbrook Museum of Art stated.
It comes as no surprise then that he was heavily influenced early on in his career by cubism, which was introduced to the world by Georges Braque and Picasso. If one wanted to extrapolate themselves from the norm, this was the movement to be part of. He would help to bring it to the attention of forward-thinking artists back in the US.
But he wouldn’t stay with it. There was just too much going on to stick to just one approach, a plethora of ideas to explore with a palate of colours and a bare canvas. While he was initially on the periphery of artistic discourse, ridiculed even, as modernism progressed, he was increasingly recognised for his part in tearing up the rule book.
In 1945, LIFE magazine described him as “the greatest living artist in America”, while Design magazine in 1948 referred to him as “the leading old master of modern American Art”.
Models and Muses: Max Weber and the Figure at the Philbrook Museum of Art runs until February 3rd 2013.
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