A Few Words on Arthur B. Davies

Currently, in our Main Gallery is the exhibition Contradiction & Classicism: The Prints of Arthur B. Davies. This coming Thursday, October 2nd at 5:00 pm we have the pleasure of hosting the show’s curator Christine I. Oaklander, who will give a lecture on Davies’ life and artwork. Below are a few facts about this most curious man.

Lithographs Landed Davies his First Show. Davies made his first lithographs in the 1890s, relinquishing the process thereafter until the 1920s.  His first solo exhibition in New York City, mounted at the Keppel Gallery in 1893, was devoted to lithographs; it elicited the artist’s first review, published in the New York Times.

Davies’ Obsession with Antiquities Inspire a Love for the Female Form. Davies’ lifelong interest in depicting the female figure was shaped by a range of ancient cultures and by historical and contemporary artists, including the nineteenth-century French Symbolist painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the contemporary dancers Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan.  Perhaps the strongest and most abiding influence came from ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, painted vases, and murals focused on the ideal female form, usually presented in the form of goddesses such as Athena, Ceres, and Venus. Davies would have had ample opportunity to view examples of these art forms in New York City in private collections, galleries, or at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or during a series of trips to Europe, beginning in 1895.  In fact, he became an inveterate collector of antiquities, acquiring examples of ancient Greek and Roman objects as well as antiquities from other cultures like Assyria and Cyprus.  Many of his purchases were made from the prominent New York antiquities dealer Dikran Kelekian.  (The auction catalogue of his art collection, on view nearby, includes many such antiquities.)

Involvement in a Historically Significant Modern Exhibition. In January 1912, Arthur B. Davies was elected president of the newly-minted Association of American Painters and Sculptors, thrusting him into the leadership of an exhibition that a century later is still considered the most important exhibition in the history of American art.  Consisting of about 1,400 European and American artworks surveying Western art from 1800 to contemporary times, the 1913 Armory Show was the first significant public showing in the United States of the radical “isms” of abstract modern art including Fauvism and Cubism.  The vast installation, housed in the 69th Regiment Armory on 26th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, caused a national sensation, horrifying and shocking some viewers while it energized and inspired others.  During and following the exhibition, several of the key artist-organizers experimented with modernist principles and themes in their own work, including Davies.  For a brief period of time, from 1913 to around 1919, his paintings, sculptures, and prints show the decided impact of Cubism, with its geometric abstracted forms.  Davies also amassed a significant collection of modernist art by European and American artists, purchasing a handful of European works at the Armory Show.  He and fellow Armory Show impresario Walt Kuhn were instrumental in founding the Museum of Modern Art, which opened the year after Davies’ death.

Experimentation with Mediums Consistently Bring Forth Davies’ Famous Female Forms. Throughout his prolific career, Arthur B. Davies was enamored with experimentation.  In this exhibition we see the many print techniques, plate alterations, and different mediums he exploited in his print oeuvre. Davies worked with additive (building up as with clay) and reductive (removing as with carving away wood or stone) sculpture; these bronzes are an example of additive sculpture since a clay figure would have been created from which a mold was made with which to cast the molten bronze.  He also made a small group of cast glass figures and decorative cast objects like jewelry, small boxes, and hand mirrors.  A small group of cubist-informed wood carvings are also known.  Davies even made designs for tapestries, which were executed at the world-famous tapestry works at Gobelins, France.  He also was active as a mural painter, executing several important mural installations   at the behest of woman patrons Lizzie Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.  What remains constant throughout his oeuvre, whatever the material or medium, is his fixation with the female form.




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