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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Joseph Kleitsch

Laguna on a Cloudy Day, Joseph Kleitsch, a rarity in southern California.                  
Bougainvillea, Mission San Juan Capistrano,
Joseph Kleitsch
Having just returned from a full-length (of the state) ramble encompassing much of California, I came away impressed. I went prepared to be disappointed, even disgusted with the "state of affairs," but wasn't. California does not disappoint. First of all, if you don't like a particular area you can always go elsewhere in the state and find a very different environment. Of course, the current drought limits that possibility somewhat. At the moment the entire state is simply dry, though in some parts you'd hardly notice what with crop irrigation and lawn sprinklers. Naturally, we didn't see the entire state. There's simply too much of it, though we did stay in California longer than any other state we visited. Despite the maddening congestion of L.A. freeways, I liked southern California. Moving on up the coast, if you look to your left, there's nothing but wildly dramatic coastal landscape. If you look to your right, there's nothing but monotonous low mountains and vineyards--boring. San Francisco has a great bay, but it was a horrible place to build a city, even two-hundred years ago. Further north, you get the feeling you could be driving through any of a dozen other states.
This is what Kleitsch found in Laguna beach, ca. 1917.
(Virtually none of Kleitsch's paints bear dates.)
Joseph Kleitsch Self-portrait.
The one part of California we did not see was the area south of Los Angeles. However, having seen what we saw, it's not hard for me to understand why the Hungarian artist, Joseph Kleitsch, decided to leave Paris, Budapest, and Munich, where he'd studied art, and move there in 1920. He was thirty-eight years old. Though first settling in Chicago around 1912, where he met and married his wife, the windy city was bare-knuckles, dirty, industrial metropolis laden with crime and punishment. Despite its famed art institute and plenty of money to support would-be painters, it was no artist's paradise. Winters were harsh, and summers hardly any better. Specifically, Kleitsch wanted to live in the picturesque artists' colony of Laguna Beach (southern Orange County about halfway between L.A. and San Diego). If you're familiar with Laguna Beach today, it's still an artists' colony with no less than four major art festivals, as well as a respectable museum of California art and its own Laguna Beach Playhouse (theater). However, Laguna Beach today is a far cry from that which drew Joseph Kleitsch to California almost a hundred years ago. Of course, the same could be said of California in general. Today there's more of everything except land and, apparently, water. Especially there's more people, more tourists, more money, more hype, and lots and lots more condos and hotels. The Hotel Laguna Beach (above) was one of the few in 1917. Today, there are over thirty.
The Chicago Riverfront, Joseph Kleitsch
--definitely not what he came all the way from Europe to paint.

Ocean Front - Main Beach, Laguna, Joseph Kleitsch
Kleitsch died of a heart attack in 1931, so that means he lived there little more than ten years. Nonetheless, he saw the community at its best, in the midst of the "roaring" 20s and before the Great Depression had time to take its toll on art and artists of that area and era. The Laguna Beach Kleitsch knew looked much like his Ocean Front painting (left) and in a strange way, not too unlike the resort regions Kleitsch knew in Europe at the time. All of southern California, even now, has a very strong Spanish colonial ambiance, which Kleitsch, delighted in painting. He especially loved San Juan Capistrano (top, left).

The broad crescent of Laguna Beach is still there,
but Kleitsch might not want to live there today.
The Ambassador Hotel Swimming Pool,
Los Angeles, 1920s, Joseph Kleitsch
Californians loved Kleitsch too. He was an impressionist, and Californians, even today, love Impressionism. Moreover, having been schooled in Europe, Kleitsch was an especially talented and authentic one at that, as compared to Americans who often merely imitated the style based upon secondhand exposure to such works in museums. And while Kleitsch was most beloved for his southern California landscapes, he made quite a name for himself during his time in Chicago as well as Laguna Beach by painting portraits, including, in 1912, a family portrait for the then President of Mexico, Francisco Madero. And though he was considered an outstanding colorist, once you gain a certain level of competance, even allowing for his impressionist handling of those colors, it's difficult to rise above the portrait painting competition in any significant way. Kleitsch did not. His 1920s images of Laguna Beach, however, did rise above those of his peers. Two years after the artist died, his wife opened the Joseph Kleitsch Gallery in Laguna Beach, which still exists today. By the way, it's said they pay top dollar for old Kleitsch paintings, so if you live in that area, check the attic.

Laguna Cove, Joseph Kleitsch. This was the Laguna Beach he came to paint.

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