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Monday, September 8, 2014

Jacob Kainen

College art class, circa 1920--Survival of the fittest.                   
As an art educator in one form or another over the past forty-some years, it's interesting to see how the art and science of training young artists has changed, first in just my lifetime, as well as over centuries past. Even in just the past hundred years, much has changed. For instance, a hundred years ago, as indeed, as far back as the Renaissance, a serious would-be art student, in beginning formal academic training, was already something of an accomplished artist--far moreso than today. Either the adolescent artist learned the basics, how to draw and paint on their own, or from some local hack. There was a very immediate need to prove to parents that his or her talent was sufficient to vest with costly art school training (above) in some form, and, after graduation, there would be the will and the skill to make a living. The talented teenage artist a century ago, lived and breathed art, while all the time likely holding down a part time job to help support the family. I've trained dozens of outstanding artists, and I can't recall ever encountering a single one (myself included) who was that dedicated.

High school art classes today, institutionalized, generalized, homogenized.
Creativity rules. Skills...only as needed.
Today, basic training in art has become institutionalized. As a public school art instructor for twenty-six years, I was part of that. Yet even the best art students I've ever graduated were not as well-trained, not as versatile, nor as adept as early 20th-century art students such as Edward Hopper, Albert Dorne, Norman Rockwell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and any number of others struggling to master their art during the early 1900s. There are two or three pretty good reasons for this. Perhaps first and foremost would be that there are simply too many other activities occupying the adolescent mind and time today. Parents insist their children be "well rounded." Outstanding artists are seldom well-rounded. I know I'm certainly not (except for my belly). Also, today there are so many drawing "aids" (photography, computers, etc.) there is likely not as much need for the present day art student to acquire the exceptional eye-hand coordination artists needed during the early 20th century. And finally, and most recently, there is no longer the need for students in art, or most other fields in fact, to stuff their heads full of facts (Gilbert Stuart painted George Washington), figures (anatomical), and images (Monet's Impression, Sunrise) when such trivialities are instantly available on the Internet and easily converted to whatever format the student might need. Just as schools today are starting to (or already have) quit teaching cursive handwriting, the same is also happening in terms of the age old skills of drawing still-lifes, figures, etc. A hundred years ago, art students were still drawing from plaster casts of the human figure.

Hot Dog Cart, 1938, Jacob Kainen--30s' Social Realism
Jacob Kainen Self-portrait, 1942,
pen, brush and ink on paper.
Jacob Kainen (left), whom you've probably never heard of, is, nevertheless, an excellent example of how art training has changed just during the 20th-century. Kainen was born in 1909 in Connecticut the second of three sons of a Russian-Jewish immigrant inventor. His mother passed on to her young son her love of classical music and literature. Almost from the time he could hold a pencil, Jacob drew, everything from pictures out of magazines to the old masters. In attending night classes at New York's Art Students League as a sixteen-year-old, and later at the Pratt Institute of Art, he often found himself knowing far more about art than his fellow students, even more than his instructors at times. Today we might refer to him as something of an intellectual "sponge."

Lunch, 1936, Jacob Kainen, WPA
print. Some people hardly noticed
 the Great Depression.
As a thoroughly trained, budding young artist, Jacob Kainen had the misfortune to almost graduate from Pratt Institute (he was expelled for protesting their changeover to a commercial art curriculum) about the same time as the Great Depression bore down on the city of New York and the rest of the nation. In rebellion, Kainen embraced the current avant-garde, which centered around Social Realism. His Hot Dog Cart (above) from 1938 is typical of his work during this time. Fortunately, along with the Depression, there came along the federal government's WPA. While other painters were rendering Americana murals on post office walls, Kainen fell in with the graphic arts program, learning the art and craft of printmaking (etchings and woodcuts). Some of his original prints (not reproductions) from that era are still available for purchase today. The experience was to serve him well as from 1942-1970, he served as curator of the Division of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian in Washington.

The Flood, 1937, Jacob Kainen. Though the exact location is unknown (and probably immaterial), this could well be the Muskingum River where I grew up.
The Tenement Fire, 1934,
Jacob Kainen
Kainen's black and white prints WPA prints were, in effect, art images not unlike the photographic images of the Depression taken my photographers such as Dorothea Lang, Phyllis Sheffield, and Lewis Hine. His The Flood (above), depicts the 1937 flood which devastated much of the mid-west (my parents often talked about it). Virtually all of Kainen's WPA works were black and white prints. His Tenement Fire (left) is indicative of the Social Realism work he was doing on his own at the time. Later, as the war came and went, Kainen's work became more and more abstract, perhaps driven by the angst he felt working for a government with more important things to worry about (and spend scarce tax dollars on) than the Smithsonian's print archive, which grew from about 1,000 pieces when he began, to over 7,000 when he retired in 1970, during which time he was constantly in danger of losing his job.

Red Flash, (post retirement), Jacob Kainen
Woodblock Printer, 1940, Jacob
Kainen, a trade he knew well.
In retirement, Kainen once more turned his hand to abstractions, veering away from the prevailing infatuation of the time with figural painting, toward a lighter, purer style. As often happens when artists grow exceptionally old, his friends and fellow curators honored him with numerous awards and retrospective exhibits. He died in 2001 at the age of ninety-one, painting up until the day before his death. Despite his very Modern Art style and legacy, Jacob Kainen very much personified the definition of an "old school" painter.

When I did my stint on the front lines of art education, my classes weren't
quite this much "fun," but they sometimes seemed that way.
(Notice the instructor in the upper right corner.)


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