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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ivan Albright

Picture of Dorian Gray, 1943-44, Ivan Albright
Have you ever known an artist who invests so much time and meticulous skill into creating his or her art that it becomes more valuable to them than to any potential buyer? As an art instructor I've see this more than a few times to varying degrees--for example, a painting that might be worth a hundred dollars, the artist wants a thousand dollars for it. Needless to say, such artists don't sell many paintings. However, over a considerable time, the exquisite quality of the artist's work may become recognized sufficiently that the market value and the artist's perceived value begin to mesh. Often this happens as a result of the overindulged paintings winning awards in various prestigious art competitions. Judges tend to recognize and reward quality work without regard for the asking price by the artist. What I've described is exactly the case having to do with the American "Magic Realism" painter, Ivan Albright.

Artists, don't try this at home.
(A decent image from the 2010 film was unavailable.)
No matter how anal-retentive an artist might be, if the resulting work is breathtakingly beautiful, then the exorbitant asking price may be less of a factor. But if the work, such as Albright's Picture of Dorian Gray (top) is breathtakingly ugly, sales will likely be few and far between. This particular painting was commissioned by MGM movie studios in 1943-44 for their version of Oscar Wilde's novel about a young man whose portrait ages rather than he, himself. Albright's unbearably ugly painting of Mr. Gray is, of course, the portrait's final state near the end of the movie. The story has been filmed twice since Mr. Albright's painting stole the show in 1945. Compare Albright's image with the youthful portrait of Dorian Gray (above) by Henrique Medina in the original version and with Massimo Dallamano's Italian remake from 1970.

If you think these look bad, check out the ones Albright
painted during the final three years of his life (below).
Flesh, 1928, Ivan Albright
Normally about here I offer a few brief lines about the artist's background, education, and influ-ences along with one or more self-portraits. In this case I could do all of that just by displaying Albright's many...many, many self-portraits. Quite often when artists paint self-portraits, they make a conscious effort to depict themselves practicing their trade, sometimes stopping just short of shameless flattery. Not Ivan Albright. He stops just short of shameless, hideous, decrep-itude. So fascinating are Albright's many self-portraits, some of which can be seen below, and his figural works such as Flesh (left) from 1928, that I was tempted to concentrate only on them, ignoring the many other incredible pieces created during Albright's long, but not particularly productive, career.

1981--born in 1897, Albright was eighty-four that year.

Gnarled, insightful, and honest, are words
associated with Albright's self-portraits.

Among Albright's last works.
He died in November, 1983.

Portrait of the Artist's Father
Adam Emory Albright, Ivan
Ivan Albright and his identical twin brother, Malvin, were born near Chicago in North Harvey, Illinois. Their father was Adam Emory Albright, a noted landscape painter. The two brothers were insep-arable during childhood, and throughout much of their young adult lives. Both enrolled in The Art Institute of Chicago. They flipped a coin to decide that Ivan would study painting and Malvin sculp-ture. It's not hard to see that Ivan particularly admired the work of El Greco and Rembrandt, yet his early style had as much to do with his father's influence as any other artist. However, Albright's style changed drastically as the years quickly sped by. Most notably this can be seen in comparing two early paintings, starting with his Burgomeister with Key, (below, left) from 1925, shortly after his college years. It's the earliest of his works known to exist.

And Man Created God in his
Own Image, 1930, Ivan Albright
Burgomeister with Key,
1925, Ivan Albright
The second, And Man Created God in His Own Image, (right) from 1930, was painted just five years later. Obviously Albright's palette had darkened, but so had his outlook on life, judging by his title, if nothing else. When the painting was displayed in the South, the title was reversed--And God Created Man in his Own Image. Either way, neither man nor God appear in a very favorable light. Early in the 1930s Albright developed a consistent, meticulous technique in his painting. The technique included the use of numerous detailed drawings, creating his own color palette, and painting with hundreds of little brushes. Albright's technique was time-consuming, but it not only allowed for detailed depiction of the physical deterioration of objects and people, but also enabled him to incorporate a complex multitude of slight shifts in his point-of-view as well as highlighting the relationships between the objects. Albright’s combination of extreme realism with a violent and lurid color palette led art critics to categorize his paintings as American Magic Realism.

Pvt. Miller, Chas. E. Gas Infection, 1918, Ivan Albright
Albright briefly attended Northwestern University, only to drop out and take up architecture at the University of Illinois. During World War I he did medical drawings for a hospital in Nantes, France (above). It was morbid work that probably influenced his later style. Though he tried working in architecture and advertising briefly, Albright was disturbed by commercialism and took seriously to painting. He and his wife lived in Philadelphia through most of the mid-1920s then returned to Illinois, where Albright began to achieve some substantial success, having his first show in 1930. Ivan Albright's typically dark, mysterious works are among the most meticulous paintings ever made. They often required several years to complete. Details would sometimes be created using brushes of a single hair. The amount of effort that went into his paintings made him quite possessive of them. Even during the Great Depression, he charged 30 to 60 times what comparable artists were getting, with the result that sales were infrequent.

Ah God, Herrings, the Glittering Sea, 1940, Ivan Albright
The lineman, 1927,
Ivan Albright
The Door, 1941,
Ivan Albright
In order to survive, the Albright family relied on the support of his father, and took odd car-pentering jobs. An early paint-ing of his, The Lineman (left) won an award and made the cover of Electric Light and Power, a trade magazine. However Albright's stooped, forlorn portrayal raised pro-tests among the readership, who did not consider such an image representative. The edit-ors later distanced themselves from Albright's work. Among the themes Albright focused upon with most of his images were death, life, the material, the spiritual, and the effects of time. He painted very complex works, with their titles matching their complexity. He refused to name paintings until they were complete, whereupon he would come up with several possibilities, always more poetic than descriptive, before deciding. One of his most famous paintings, which took him some ten years to complete, was titled That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (or sometimes simply The Door). It won the top prize at three major exhibitions in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia in 1941. The prize at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York earned him a $3,500 purchase award and a place in the permanent collection. But Albright was not willing to part with the work for less than $125,000. Instead, he took the First Medal allowing him to keep the painting.

It would seem the Ivan Albright celebrated his addiction to alcohol and tobacco, though his aging, time-worn face says otherwise.
The Farmer's Kitchen,
1933, Ivan Albright
Despite much time spent traveling the world, Albright never stopped working. He made over twenty self-portraits in his last three years, even on his deathbed, drawing the final ones after a stroke. He died in 1983. On the 100th anniversary of Ivan Albright’s birth, February 20, 1997, the Art Institute of Chicago opened a major show of his work. Appears the Man, a photograph of Ivan Albright and his most famous work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, can today be found in the Art Institute of Chicago. Albright remained with his family in Chicago for sixty-six years before moving to Woodstock, Vermont, to seek of a quieter lifestyle. In the 1970s, he served as a lecturer at Dartmouth College, while remaining an active artist until his death. Incidentally, Ivan Albright was the father-in-law of former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

View from Room 603, Watergate,
Washington, D.C., 1974, Ivan Albright


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