ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 15 Salcia Bahnc
In the golden age of art revolt in Chicago, when the artists were straining every nerve to produce, and before our “modernism” degenerated into the soulless, surface vapidities that now clutter the Art institute shows and take the prizes, the Theroigne de Mericourt was Salcia Bahnc. Hers was a name to swear by, and at — an undulating name with an explosive finish. Her popularity with the rebels was matched by the fearful respect the opposite camp paid her.
For Salcia Bahnc “knew her stuff.” No matter how displeased the conservatives might be with her pictures, they were forced to recognize a technical proficiency at the command of powerful, if wayward and erratic, impulses. Nobody could doubt her sincerity, nobody could hurl at her the epithet “four-flusher,” which so many of the “moderns” in our midst invited — and still invite.
Then about five years ago after she had become almost miraculously a “best seller” — for extreme modern art” even yet languishes in the market — Salcia Bahnc went to Paris to live. Presently she married and became a French citizen.
Just now she is back in Chicago for a brief visit, and for her first Chicago exhibition in four years, at the Roullier Galleries.
Salcia Bahnc, of a wealthy and aristocratic Polish-Jewish family, was transferred suddenly, as a child, from a comfortable home in the little city of Przemysl, Poland, to New York’s ghetto, and an unusually cruel poverty.
For all the clothes she had were of silk, cut from her mother’s dresses — her mother being too poor to buy the ginghams and calicoes the other ghetto children wore.
Salcia was marked, in consequence, as a snob by her playmates, and they made life miserable for her. She remembers one time coming to a definite resolution to kill the chief of her tormentors, a ragtag little girl about her own age. But suddenly, before striking the blow, she thought how sad the little girl’s mother would be when she saw her stretched dead, and so her heroic resolution was drowned in a flood of tears.
In Dukla, the little town in the Carpathian Mountains where she was born, and in Przemysl, Salcia had firmly impressed in her consciousness the picturesque Jewish customs and festivals, mingled with rustic, mid-European Catholicism — for she was sent to a Catholic school, the only pay school in her neighborhood. These memories and the memories of New York’s ghetto were to figure prominently in her work when she came to be an artist.
From New York, Salcia and her mother went to Boston, where they had some relatives with means, and where her mother contracted a second marriage, which eventuated in the family moving to Chicago.
Salcia, meanwhile, was showing a precocious talent as an artist. But the family fortune was such that it was necessary for her to go to work at 14 in a neighborhood department store where, in a balcony cage, she counted change and wrapped bundles and shot them in baskets over wires to all parts of the store for $2.50 a week. Eventually, after a year, they raised her to $4. A part of this “salary” went for piano lessons each Sunday.
She learned from her music teacher that drawing was taught at the Art Institute “downtown.” So long were her hours in the neighborhood store that she couldn’t find time to go to the art school. So, being now 15, she boldly quit her job, lengthened her dress, invaded State Street, told the manager of a big store she was 19, and got a job at $7 a week.
Immediately, she registered for evening classes at the Art Institute. She spent the intervals between the closing of the store and the start of her classes at the library, reading Shakespeare and other early English writers. A constant companion was a translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” small enough to carry in her pocket and inspiration for many daydreams.
After a time, when about 19, she decided to cash in on her art skill and break away from the cashiers’ cages of department stores. So she took up fashion drawing.
Instead of the deadening effect “commercial art” usually has on a struggling young talent, fashion drawing opened to Salcia Bahnc a new vista, which she turned to remarkable account,. She became interested not only in design but in textiles; and from experiments with silks she evolved a method of her own of painting in oil on silk without the oil spreading.
Paintings on silk first brought her into notice as an artist of fine creative powers. A “Salome” and a “Cleopatra,” so executed, electrified visitors to Salcia Bahnc’s first one-man exhibition in the old Thurber galleries on Michigan Avenue. They Bahnc is “primitive” — the wise “primitive” of a modern age that takes the crude impulses of creative geniuses of the past and adroitly and deftly turns them into something new without sacrificing their freshness and spontaneity. A self-portrait of hers on silk challenges the masterpieces of medieval times.
After “Salome” and “Cleopatra,” Salcia Bahnc attempted a huge nude, stretched full length, “Primitive Woman.” It was not wholly successful but it started her on a career of nude painting that came through resoundingly.
“The Shulamite,” first of these, succeeded in every point where “Primitive Woman” had fallen down. Then came a brilliant pair of Old Testament pictures on the same giant scale: “Lot’s Daughters” and “Judith.” These rank with great biblical interpretations of old times, vivid and poetical as they, with the added wisdom “modernism” has brought into art.
This was Salcia Bahnc’s “period of grandeur” — a period that also brought forth some exceptional portraits.Bahnc was leading a “double life.” Her paintings on silk and the alert insight she had into textiles and design and won her a teaching position on the Art Institute staff. — no more clerking in department stores! Those same paintings on silk — the “Salome” and the “Cleopatra” — made her a leader among “modernists” — the “academy” versus the rebels.
She had learned faithfully her lessons in the classes of Reynolds and the other conservatives on the Institute staff — but also had come under the influence of the brilliant, wild Szukalski, like her a Pole. Salcia Bahnc’s strong mind and controlled emotions were able to fuse all elements into the powerful art the radicals admired and the conservatives respected.
During her “period of grandeur,” Salcia Bahnc developed a longing to go to Paris, capital of the world of art, and try her fortune there. She made a preliminary visit and, after a brief return to Chicago, went to France for good.
Work she has done in Paris reveals a brightening up of her previous somber colors, but no drastic change in the emotional content of her pictures. She is still the Pole, the “primitive,” the ghetto girl, the aristocrat — her mother is of the Van Ast’s, Holland Jews who have numbered distinguished artists in their ranks.
Materially? She went to France at the time the depression started, whose stranglehold has gradually tightened about the throat of all art — Parisian art more severely than any other. Even the international moguls among the “moderns” have had to sell two or three of their five or six automobiles and discharge the greater number of their servants.
Salcia tells ruefully of her “big show” in Paris. She had prepared for it for three years. The day it opened, in February of last year, the Stavisky scandal riots broke out, accompanied by the great taxi strike that paralyzed the transportation of Paris. Hotheads threatened barricades in the streets — 1830, 1848, 1870 were excitedly recalled. Paris had a lot to think about other than that a highly talented Chicago artist had honored it by becoming a “citoyenne.”