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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Isaac Grunewald

The Garden Path, 1939, Isaac Grunewald
Isaac Grunewald Self-portrait, 1912
One of the greatest nuisances historians and genealogists have to put up with is the fact that there are just not enough different names to go around. I've written about it before. The most common occurrence is within families, the penchant fathers have for naming their sons after themselves, sometimes even to the third or fourth generation. By that time notations in parentheses (the elder) or (the younger) don't provide much help. We get to the point it's almost like we're dealing with royalty, in which Roman numerals start popping up. As bad as that might be, artists with some of the more common last names keep popping sometimes hundreds of years later, or worse, only a few years apart. I've even encountered unrelated artist living and working in the same country at the same time that were born within a few years of each other. That's when things really get confusing. It's bad enough for a writer or historian who may be expecting such parallels. For the casual art appreciator, such redundancy can be quite frustrating. Having said that, this morning I came upon the name, Isaac Grunewald. As I was reading his biography I didn't take note of his birthdate. I kept reading down the page, wondering, when they would mention his magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece. They never did. Oops, wrong Grunewald.
Still-life with Zinnia, Isaac Grunewald--painted with Matisse looking over his shoulder?
The Violet Hat, 1927, Sigrid Hjertén
(probable self-portrait)
Mathias Grunewald, the painter of the Isenheim Altarpiece was born in 1470. Isaac Grunewald was a Swedish Expressionist painter born in Stockholm in 1889. So far as I know they were of no relation. Their art certainly wasn't related in any way. Mathias painted in a Northern Renaissance style of German hyper-realism. Isaac was a student of the French painter, Henri Matisse, which tells you about all you need to know regarding his style. Beyond that, beyond the name confusion, Isaac Grunewald was Jewish, which has a great deal more to do with his life and times as an artist than his Swedish Expressionism or any Matisse connection. While studying in Paris, Isaac Grunewald met his future wife, Sigrid Hjertén, also a painter, also a student of Matisse, and also Jewish. They were married in 1911.

Studio Interior, 1916, Sigrid Hjertén
(a double portrait, and likely the older of their two sons in the lower right corner).
Studio in Paris, ca. 1912, Isaac Grunewald,
his wife at her easel. 
Art historians today credit Isaac Grunewald and his wife as having brought Modernism to Sweden during the 1920s. If so, it was no minor accomplishment. They displayed broadly in Sweden and various international exhibitions around Europe, being lumped with other artist of their generation into a group called "The Young Ones." Isaac, at least, was highly successful as a stage designer, painter, teacher, and lecturer, yet the couple was very often the victims of anti-Semitism. The Swedish press was merciless in ridiculing them, implying that Isaac Grunewald was nothing more than a Matisse imitator (Expressionism not being particularly popular, in any case), and much more of a stereotypical Jewish businessman than an artist. Sigrid got similar treatment as much because she was a woman as being Jewish. Women artists, especially Jewish women artists, were not much respected or much loved during this period in Sweden.

The Old Deck Chair, 1941, Isaac Grunewald,
probably his second wife, Marta.
Isaac Grunewald was a strong, determined, vitally active artist. The Jewish businessman stereotype was not far wrong. His wife was not. Though she was a highly prolific painter, often turning out a painting a day for weeks at a time, she was also something of a hypochondriac. Sigrid was intermittently in and out of mental hospitals during much of their marriage. Add to that the fact that she was rather frail and subject to schizophrenic attacks, all of which had a profound effect on her work. It also led to their divorce, coincidentally about the time she began to receive public recognition for her work. She was permanently institutionalized in 1937. She died in 1948. Grunewald remarried that same year (1937). He and his second wife (above) were killed in a plane crash in 1946.
At the Desk, (undated) Isaac Grunewald


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