No. 11 Rudolph Weisenborn
For a decade — roughly the ‘20s of the present century — the terms “Weisenborn” and “Modernism” were synonyms in Chicago. For five of these years, Weisenborn was president of the radical No-Jury Society. After his retirement following a violent and spectacular quarrel with his directors, for fully another five years, you could hear whispered about, as No-Jury sank farther and farther into the slough of ineptitude, something equivalent to that grandly melodramatic phrase of Bulwer-Lytton’s: “Tremble, Rienzi shall return!”
But Rienzi Weisenborn didn’t come back. Instead, he retired more and more secludedly from “art politics,” and now lives the quiet, industrious life of an instructor in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, painting on the side, exactly as he pleases and for his own satisfaction. No-Jury sank eventually out of sight, with now and then a gas bubble still coming to the surface.
Rudolph Weisenborn, Raymond Johnson, Karl Hoeckner, and Gordon St. Clair, in 1921, organized a “Salon des Refuses” — a “runaway show” from the Art Institute, whose jury had rejected the work wholesale of the younger progressive Chicago artists. So successful in point of public interest was this show, held at the Rothschild department store (now the Davis store), that a permanent organization was formed to exhibit the work of the artists without jury action. The Marshall Field store invited Weisenborn and his associates to use its galleries, and there the first show was held in 1922.
In those “hangover” days from the World War, the “red menace” was as “touchy” as it has become recently. “Radical” artists were lurkingly suspected, as they had been ever since the days of the commune in Paris in 1871 when Courbet was exiled and a number of his friends arrested and questions. “No-Jury Means Freedom!” was the slogan adopted by the new art society, and when you talk about “freedom” with an exclamation point when the police are looking for “reds,” you are out of luck.
Weisenborn was hauled out of bed one morning by a squad of twelve bluecoats who had got a “tip” he was president of No-Jury. A poster bearing the fatal slogan was hanging in his studio. That was enough evidence — he was ordered into the wagon.
“Do you consider Marshall Field’s a red hangout?” asked the annoyed but amused artist.
The leader of the cops scratched his head, puzzled, on reading the name of the store in smaller letters on the poster. He let Weisenborn go back to bed. I’ve sometimes wondered if that square-headed squad doesn’t figure in some of Weisenborn’s cubistic compositions.
If the big store stood him in good stead on that occasion, some restrictions the gallery felt necessary later to impose on the absolute freedom of No-Jury to exhibit what it please caused the rupture between Weisenborn and his directors and his retirement as president.
Weisenborn “felt that the society was in a position to stand on its own feet,” his literary wife, Fritzi Weisenborn, writes me in a most vivid summing up of his career; “that it could only grow if it were unattached to any whim or commercial sense of an institution. All the directors agreed individually with Weisenborn, but en masse they disagreed. Possibly they were overcome with the awe and splendor of Marshall Field’s. It had helped in making people respect the pictures. Weisenborn knew the value of Marshall Field’s name, but to him it was something to pass through, not to stop at. The directors were like poor socialists who suddenly become rich. Some more of that human nature stuff. Anyway, they wouldn’t move from Field’s. Weisenborn, who believes in being tolerant until he almost busts, yelled land swore at them and called them a bunch of numbskulls. They were all insulted and wanted to resign, but he did instead.”
No-Jury stayed on at Field’s, submitting to restrictions of “good taste” and “propriety,” but without the driving force of the little Rienzi (Weisenborn, like Napoleon, is small in stature but mighty in authority), the society deteriorated and eventually it didn’t interest the Field galleries any longer. Excluded, No-Jury led a nomad existence for a time, exhibiting in various donated quarters about town, then languished and, with the coming of the Great Depression, lay down with heart feebly fluttering. Nobody knows for sure even yet whether it is actually dead.
Weisenborn, besides being president of No-Jury, was one of its most original and creative artists. His pictures invariably excited admiration or indignation of the visitors, depending on whether they were of the “modern” or the “conservative” clique.
“Weisenborn doesn’t like to be labeled a vorticist, a cubist, or any ‘ist’,” Fritzi Weisenborn tells me.
But his fate has been that of the brave, rustic youth who doesn’t believe in ghosts but has to pass the country graveyard alone at night. I don’t know of anybody more haunted by “isms” than this same Weisenborn.
Mrs. Weisenborn, however, understands him amazingly. Here are a few excerpts: “To him, painting is the only reason for living. Anything that intrudes upon that must get out. … His mind functions through his eyes. Words mean little to him. … A crowd of people in the loop mean more to him than each individual in the group., … In street cars, he looks out of the window at the passing buildings and the sky, and not at the passengers in the car. … He hates people who are bored with life and think art is a plaything, and those who judge an artist by his gift of gab. … He has no inhibitions about women as artists or writers. He judges them alike, be they male or female. … He is not jealous and has a fine sense of picking other artists.”
This latter observation is startlingly true. Weisenborn in No-Jury and later as the head of Neo-Arlimusc, a short-lived, fantastic society (Art-Literature-Music-Science) made more “discoveries” of new talent than all the rest of the forces in Chicago put together.
Weisenborn’s art life in Chicago began in 1913, the year “modernism” was introduced here through the “Armory Show.” His was an unhappy youth. Chicago was his birthplace, to parents who had come here from Strasbourg, Germany. They died when he was an infant. His older brother and two sisters were adopted. He was sent to the Chicago Home for the Friendless.
Out of the home, at 9, he was adopted by a farmer School teacher in South Dakota and set doing farm chores. At school, he drew pictures and was the choice of the teacher to decorate the blackboards for holiday occasions. At 13, he ran away, going to another village in South Dakota where he hired himself cutting bundles for a threshing machine. After eighteen months, he moved on to Wisconsin in a caravan of homesteaders, helping drive their cattle. Then followed a progression of dairy farms in Wisconsin, lumber camps in Minnesota, and following the harvest from Oklahoma to North Dakota.
But he had acquire an interest in life — to save money to go to an art school. His next migration was to Colorado to see the mountains. He studied the Rockies as a hand on a cattle ranch. Then after a while, he wandered to Denver — and to an art teacher, Henry Reed. He had saved enough for a year’s tuition. He paid this in and earned his room and board as janitor in a high school. Eventually, under instruction of Reed and later Jean Mannheim, newly arrived from Paris, Weisenborn became proficient enough in art to earn money doing commercial work for department stores and portrait sketches for the Denver Post. His idol was Rembrandt, and he did a portrait of himself a la Rembrandt which Mannheim called a masterpiece, with the prediction he would never again equal it.
At Cripple Creek during the mine strikes and riots, Weisenborn did sketches for the Denver papers. Though he had gone down as a militiaman, he remained to work in the mines and to paint the mountains around about.
It was fresh from the mines and the mountains that he came to Chicago in 1913 and has lived here ever since. At first, he did backgrounds for Marshall Field’s and the Boston store. About 1919, he joined the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts as an instructor and his time since has been devoted chiefly to the “fine arts.”
Weisenborn is a tireless worker and an incorrigible experimenter. His enthusiasm for Rembrandt gave way to an equal enthusiasm for the “moderns,” particularly in their “abstract” phases. He developed a style of his own, reminiscent of British vorticism.
“In 1922,” Fritzi Weisenborn relates, “he married me, a dumb female Jewess who spent about $25 a week on books and prints by Maxfield Parrish!” Mrs. Weisenborn wasn’t long in growing out of her “dumbness,” acquiring tastes in art so far beyond poor Parrish that she has stood shoulder to shoulder with Rudolph in his crusades for enlightenment of the town’s benighted.