Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Adolf Dietrich

Waldren at Langenagen, 1917, Adolf Dietrich
The Artist's Parents,
1906, Adolf Dietrich
Whenever someone mentions "folk art" we Americans tend to think quite provincially of Grandma Moses and...and... If we try real hard, we might call to mind the French artist Henri Rousseau. The point is folk art does not begin nor end on the western side of the Atlantic. Actually, virtually every major art culture has had its folk artists. And though folk art, as we now consider it, dates back no more than a couple hundred years, to colonial limners (self-taught, traveling portrait artists) Americans, by no means, have a monopoly on such work. One might argue that prehistoric cave painting was, in fact, folk art in its purist form. However, we can probably date the beginnings of folk art to the 19th century and the general availability of oil paints in tubes. Except, perhaps, in the case of young ladies and their watercolors, before that, it was simply to time-consuming and technical demanding for self-trained artists to paint in sufficient quantity for their work to survive.

Adolf Dietrich Self-portrait, 1918
Adolf Dietrich was born about the time paint first became available in tubes, 1877. He was the youngest of seven children born to a poor Swiss farming family. As a child, young Adolf displayed no small amount of talent. His school teacher suggested he become a lithographer. However, his parents would have no part of their son being shipped off to "who knows where" to learn "who knows what." He was needed on the farm. Moreover, that's where he stayed for the rest of his life...unmarried, working the fields, and laboring in a nearby textile mill to earn a little extra to supplement what the farm could not provide. Despite this hard scrabble, ragged, rugged existence, Adolf Dietrich literally became a "Sunday painter." For years he labored and learned, proving to himself and others that you learn to paint by painting a lot.

Girl with a May Bug, 1923,
Adolf Dietrich.
Dietrich's first minor recognition came in 1913 when his work was first displayed in conjunction with Germany's Neue Sachlachkeit movement. He came to be known as the "German Rousseau" (even though he was Swiss). During the 1920s a meager income from the sale of his work allowed him to ease back on the farm work and begin to paint full time. However, when Hitler came to power, his Jewish art dealer in Germany read the handwriting on the wall and quite wisely departed for the West. Dietrich's income fell to near zero until his work slowly began to sell in his native land. In 1937, an international traveling show crowned him a leading "native artist." Thereafter, he began to achieve recognition, sales, and decent prices for his work. Best of all, being Swiss, he was immune to the worst effects of WW II. By this time, around sixty years of age, Dietrich was so set in his ways, his new found fame and wealth had little effect on his lifestyle, except to free him to become still more prolific, churning out copies of his most popular works often using templates and stencils to save time.

Hunting Dog, 1934, Adolf Dietrich
What were these most popular works? Landscapes, mostly...dogs, birds, flowers, a few still-lifes and a few painted portraits, though he was by no means adept at the latter. Dietrich's earliest surviving painting I could find dates from 1917, Waldren at Langenagen (top) though the pencil drawn portrait of his parents just below that gives some indication of his early talent. If, when you think of folk art you picture crude perspective, unimaginative color, infinite attention to detail, and limited attention to compositional considerations, none of these qualities apply to Dietrich mature work. True, he did often paint on cardboard, plywood, and later, canvas panels, and he was totally self-taught, but it's apparent as you study his work chronologically that he taught himself well and was something of a fast learner. His work from the 1920s is somewhat "folk art" simplistic. That's less the case during the 1930s and from the 1940s on until his death in 1957, Dietrich shows a surprising degree of sophistication, though his portraits remained amateurish and he never quite managed to master painting dogs.

A Dietrich winter vista dating from 1934--no relation to Grandma Moses.

No comments:

Post a Comment