Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis

Peter Blume, Tasso's Oak, 1957-60, oil on canvas, 81 x 96 inches. Private collection, New York. © The Educational Alliance, Inc./Estate of Peter Blume/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

November 14, 2014 - April 5, 2015

Please note that the exhibition dates have been revised

Fisher Brooks Gallery, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building

Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis is the first retrospective of the American modernist Peter Blume (1906-1992) since 1976. It will include approximately 50 paintings, 60 drawings, plus sketchbooks, archival materials, and sculpture. The exhibition will reveal Blume’s central role in the development of American modernism and examine his impact on late 20th-century narrative painting. Throughout his career, Blume crafted elaborate allegories that dramatize the growth of cities, the creative process, cultural memory, political power, and regeneration. A consistent theme in his work is metamorphosis, whether in nature, manifested in dreamlike imagery or as a working method traced in the numerous drawings and studies he made for compositions. The exhibition will allow viewers to see how these interests resulted in unforgettable images that helped define American modernist art.

Blume was not a prolific painter but rather concentrated his efforts on a relatively small number of carefully conceived projects each involving a long period of exploratory drawing. After 1930 he preferred to focus on ambitious, often large-scale, slowly developed paintings that explore multi-layered themes and express major concerns of the twentieth century. Nature and Metamorphosis will include paintings from Blume’s entire career, but will feature focus sections that examine several major projects that occupied Blume over many years. Blume developed these large-scale, meticulously designed paintings by thinking through drawing. Each was preceded by dozens of working drawings in a wide range of media made with surprisingly diverse approaches. Through this process, Blume discovered the formal structure and iconographic content of his major works. In the case of The Rock (1944-48; The Art Institute of Chicago), this involved nearly one hundred multi-media studies. Drawing on a wealth of new scholarship in American modernism as well as numerous unpublished archival collections, Nature and Metamorphosis will consider the relationship between automatic drawing and precise painting in Blume’s practice, his relationships with an international community of artists and writers, and examine the political background of his imagery.

A European émigré, Blume was born into a Russian Jewish family that came to the United States from what is now Belarus. He studied in New York at the Educational Alliance Art School and Art Students League alongside of Chaim Gross and the Soyer brothers who formed his first close artistic circle. By the age of eighteen he was part of the Daniel Gallery’s progressive modernist program and had become close with several important modernist writers and artists. Blume’s earliest works reveal a precocious dialogue with American folk art and cubism through his engagement with the American landscape and urban spaces. Critics and art historians subsequently labeled these works Precisionism and associated Blume with artists such as Ralston Crawford, Francis Criss, Charles Demuth, Louis Lozowick, and Charles Sheeler who also produced rigorously designed modernist tributes to the American urban landscape.

Works from the early 1930s such as Parade (1929-30; Museum of Modern Art, New York) and South of Scranton (1930-31; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) however show that Blume was a leading early practitioner of surrealism prior to major public exhibitions of the movement in the United States. By the mid 1930s, he began working on slowly developed allegorical pictures. The first of these, The Eternal City (1934-37; Museum of Modern Art, New York) was inspired by Blume’s experiences in Italy while on Guggenheim Fellowships. The painting, a visionary critique of the rise of fascism in Europe using Mussolini’s Italy as its focus, debuted at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1937 and is among the most celebrated political paintings of the period. Nature and Metamorphosis will bring new material to light regarding The Eternal City’s reception in Italy that expands the context for this well-known modernist, anti-fascist painting.

Blume’s friendships with exiled European and surrealist artists will be examined for the first time in relation to works of the 1940s such as The Rock (1944-48) and its rich accompaniment of working sketches. The Rock is among the most resonant images of destruction and rebirth made by an American artist in the wake of World War II. The process that went into making the critically successful and highly popular painting reveals an extraordinary story about the relationship of abstraction to representational imagery in the 1940s. Involving a long and complex gestation period, it marked a turning point in his creative process that forever affected his practice. Made during a time in which Blume was practicing automatist techniques and living in a community that included Alexander Calder, Arshile Gorky, André Masson, Kay Sage, and Yves Tanguy, The Rock is an ambitious and prescient allegory about knowledge, destruction and rebirth. It is among a handful of major paintings of the 1940s that demonstrate how political and humanistic concerns could be meaningfully expressed through the language of surrealism.  This retrospective will include a large number of Blume’s automatic drawings, brought together and placed within the context of his better-known oils for the first time.

Nature and Metamorphosis will be the first exhibition to bring together works from all periods of Blume’s career, including later pictures on the flooding of Florence, a cycle of paintings on Ovid’s metamorphosis, and a late series on the seasons. Several of these projects demonstrate Blume’s ongoing confrontation with Italian Renaissance painting and its role as model and example to subvert. Blume had a great love of and deep understanding of Italian culture, which guided his work on The Eternal City and drove the making of a little-known masterpiece, Tasso’s Oak (1957-1960; private collection). In this and other paintings of the postwar period, Blume consistently made analogies between growth in nature and the artistic process as he developed the imagery and structure of his works. In later works such as Recollection of the Flood (1967-69; private collection), Blume drew analogies between Florence’s 1966 natural disaster (the flooding of the Arno river and damage to artifacts and monuments) and Jewish experience during World War II. A hallmark of his work in all periods of his career was their capacity to carry multivalent meanings, always rooted in human experience, but privileging the transformative power of the imagination.

The exhibition will include a fully illustrated catalogue edited by PAFA’s Robert Cozzolino with essays by Cozzolino on The Rock, surrealism, and automatism, Samantha Baskind on Blume’s early intellectual circles and his Jewish identity, Sergio Cortesini on The Eternal City and its reception both in the United States and Fascist Italy, David McCarthy on Fracture Ward and the US army’s patronage of artists during World War II, plus an examination of Blume’s place in early modernism by Sarah Vure, and new perspectives on the painting Tasso’s Oak and the South of Scranton controversy. An edited previously unpublished interview with Blume and selection of the artist’s writings will shed light on Blume’s enduring legacy in the postwar world.

Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis will travel to the Wadsworth Atheneum, where it will be on view June 27, 2015–September 20, 2015.

Curator: Robert Cozzolino, Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art

Presenting Foundation sponsor for Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis: The Henry Luce Foundation. Major support is provided by the Boris Lurie Art Foundation.

Additional funding is provided in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, and the Armand G. Erpf Fund. Funding for the symposium on Magic Realists is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.


The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ public programs are funded in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency).




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