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No. 28 Joseph Tomanek


The aviator as a “peeping Tom” is the unique disturbing factor in the life and art of Joseph Tomanek, whose pretty paintings of modest nudes of a readily salable type are fast establishing him as the Bouguereau of Chicago. Tomanek paints from the model and, unlike his idol, Bouguereau, he likes to paint them outdoors, bathed in sunshine and unobstructed air. But Chicago is not yet ripe for the posing of nude models, even on the bathing beaches, let alone in the wooded parks or on private lawns.


So Joseph Tomanek, who has his studio in the Bohemian-American Hall building, the tallest structure in its neighborhood on the West Side, has had the ingenious idea of posing his models on the roof, well above the window line of neighboring houses. To add to the privacy of his impromptu open-air studio, he erects walls of draperies.


But in order to get full light, he can’t put a cover over his model stand — might as well paint in a studio, as did Bouguereau. And here’s where the aviator makes his appearance — literally. Eagle-eyed fliers have more than once spotted Tomanek’s model. Statistics reveal no marked increase in crashes over Chicago since the resourceful painter put into practice his idea, but Tomanek and his model get nervous for fear the roaring monster over their heads might suddenly get out of control and plunge down to their roof. One aviator, whose name is withheld, got so accurately his bearing from the sky that he paid Tomanek a visit after landing and inquired if the roof was a “nudist colony.” He said he belonged to such a colony in Michigan. However, when he discovered it was only an artist and his model at work, he apologized for his visit.

Tomanek, some years back when real estate was being boomed, bought a big lot in the Indiana dunes going right down to Lake Michigan. When prosperity returns, he’s going to build him an open-air studio down there, set in a thick woods of cedars of his own plating and surrounded on three sides by a fence without cracks, nine feet high. Then, against Lake Michigan, he is going to pose his little nude models and produce paintings with which he hopes to challenge the late Warren Davis and perhaps the great Bouguereau himself.


Just now, Tomanek paints nudes sitting on rocks with the ocean as a background. He paints from the model, but under difficulties. He has her clothe herself in a bathing suit and pose against the expanse of Lake Michigan. He makes a sketch. Then he takes her to his studio, has her disrobe, and finishes the picture. Sometimes he uses the Lake Michigan background he sketched along with her. Sometimes he substitutes the Pacific Ocean at Los Angeles where he painted once for a period of six months, doing mostly seascapes and landscapes without figures.


Though it is scandalously old-fashioned to admire Bouguereau, who was czar of the Paris “academy” in the time of Cezanne and Van Gogh, and was both butt of sarcastic jest and black beast of the “moderns.” Tomanek is frank and unafraid in his admiration.


He believes Bouguereau was one of the greatest draftsmen of all time — a belief shared grudgingly by Van Gogh and not denied by Cezanne. Van Gogh and Cezanne condemned Bouguereau on the score of laziness in invention and sentimentality. Bouguereau was content to produce, year and year, his nudes by formula, waxing rich and renowned among buyers the world over, particularly newly rich Americans.


The period of Bouguereau’s international “notoriety,” as distinguished from substantial “fame,” is past, and Tomanek is one of my enthusiastic “rooters” in my attempt to get the big canvas of “The Bathers” out of the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago and restore it to its rightful place on the museum’s walls. His admiration of “The Bathers” is such indeed that he once painted a copy of it. And on a trip to Europe in 1922 on an Art Institute traveling scholarship, he hunted up all the Bouguereau’s he could find in the Louvre and the Luxembourg and gave them close study.


Curiously, Tomanek is owner of a psychological paradox — that has sometimes puzzled the uninitiated in the way of the artists — that Bouguereau also possessed. Bouguereau, while painting nudes for American barrooms with one hand, was painting religious pictures for European churches with the other.


Tomanek, who has made a living as a mural painter, has been most successful in the adorning of churches, both in Chicago and surrounding cities. His work here has been chiefly copying the old Italian masters, the church being conservative and not much given to experiments in the matter of art.


But when the depression struck half a dozen years ago, the church congregations, like everybody else, began saving their money, neither building new structures nor further adorning old. It was then that Tomanek, who had hitherto been painting his nudes as more or less of a hobby, turned to them for revenue.

Tomanek is identified with the Bohemian Arts Club of Chicago, along with Ingerle, Sterba, Polasek, and a number of other prominent artists of extraction from the regions now incorporated in the ne post-war state of Czechoslovakia. His birthplace was the town of Staznice, old Moravia, and his birth date April 16, 1889. His father is still living at 84, a carpenter who still goes about his business.


The family was musical, an uncle of his father being famous through Europe as a bass-viol player. Tomanek, who started to draw at 5, found his boyhood ambition torn between paint brushes and a violin. His accomplishments on the latter instrument won for him a place in the official orchestra of Staznice, a town of about 10,000 inhabitants.


But his practical mother believed he would prosper better in world’s goods as a shoemaker. He rebelled, and finally they compromised by apprenticing him in an interior decorator. Work and study took him to Prague, and eventually, after three years, he sailed for America, arriving in Chicago in 1910.


Here, he found work with a Bohemian artist named   , turning out “commercial work” on a big scale and at low prices.


Tomanek entered the Art Institute of Chicago, the fulfillment of a lifelong (till then) longing. He had wanted to study painting at Prague, but could manage neither the time nor the funds.


In his first year at the Art Institute school, he won a prize. The next year, he won another and at graduation, his fourth year, he got the capital prize, a traveling scholarship in Europe.


But conditions were so disturbed over there, immediately following the war and the welding together of disturbed elements into the new state of Czechoslovakia, that he waited for four years to make use of his prize.


Then, in 1922, he visited Paris and other art centers, but went particularly to Prague, where he studied with a celebrated figure painter, Prof. Vajtech Hynais. His teacher, who had spent ten years in Paris and worshiped “the academy,” shared his enthusiasm for Bouguereau, and after a year Tomanek returned to Chicago with the ideals he still possesses.


On coming back to Chicago from his year abroad, Tomanek went to work for Thomas Cusack, the celebrated outdoor advertiser, who had become ambitious to take “the curse” off of billboards and make them “real art.” Pressure was appearing from various organizations, who were complaining that Cusack’s board and others were cluttering up the landscape. Cusack began corralling painters with a reputation. In time he had something like 400 on his payroll.


Tomanek’s “masterpiece” for Cusack was a composition of four cupids extolling the music house of Lyon & Healy. The picture appeared on a huge billboard on Michigan Avenue. Lyon & Healy still have the studio original in their loop store.


Tomanek retains the studio on the top floor of the Bohemian-American Hall building, which he occupied in the days of his mural activities. It is so huge that he can set up a canvas fifty-give feet long. He is remaining there and, despite the “peeping Tom” aviators, on his roof annex until he can build his own open-air studio in his Indiana dunes paradise.

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