ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 36 Emil Armin
Down in the “Smokies” of North Carolina, where he has been painting this summer, Emil Armin found the mountaineers making tables and chairs of the native woods that grew ‘round about. There are 90 varieties of woods in the “Smokies,” and Armin, who is a wood carver as well as a painter, discovered chair-makers who discriminated, who were, that is to say, “artists.”
One of these “artists,” when he found Armin was intelligently interested, made him a present of three pieces of wood — table legs of cherry 75 years old. BGeside a little lake, Armin found a nonchalant heron which obligingly posed for him without knowing or caring what it was doing, but holding the pose long enough to have satisfied even the fussy Cezanne. One of the old table legs, consequently, is now a heron in Armin’s studio.
The wives of the woodworking “artists” and their daughters, Armin found, are making quilts. They are doing quite as good a job in their way as the menfolk.
Then, out in the American Southwest, where he has spent four of his “vacation” summers, Armin found the natives, both Indian and white, carving wood and weaving blankets and rugs. Though making things to sell to the tourists, these Indians and Mexicans take pride in their “art.” Besides, their handsomest pieces bring highest prices.
Armin, while as “ethical” as needs be, isn’t one of the impractical specialists who spurn money as a spur in the matter of art.
Art through all its early history, he points out, was utilitarian. The great masters of the Italian Renaissance made murals and altar pieces not vaguely “for churches,” but for some particular church. So it was with the classic sculptors of the Greek days — the Venus’s and the Diana’s were designed for definite niches. The Chinese workers in metals and clays were turning out their “art objects,” being transferred in our time from rifled graves to stately marble museums on commission and for a price.
All these — Raphael, Michelangelo, Phidias, and the Great “Yu” — did their job first. Then the “critics” discovered these workmen were “artists.”
It is in the mountain men of the Carolina “Smokies” and the desert dwellers of New Mexico that Emil Armin sees the great hope for an eventual “American art.”
“Art must grow its own way. People must have patience,” he puts it. “Ar is slow in developing. Its roots are always religious. I do not mean creeds. Independent souls are entitled to worship unknown gods.”
Armin himself was equipped in youth with a ready-made creed. He is of a pious Jewish family, his birthplace Radutz, Rumania, April 16, 1883.
His grandfather was a scribe, a maker of scrolls for use in sacred precincts of the temple, undefiled by the mechanical output of the printing press.
As a youngster in school, Emil too often let his mind and his hand wander from his lessons. He made drawings, and the greater number of these were the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which have intrigued artists in all ages. The old Mosaic commandment against “likenesses,” to keep the children of Israel pure from idols, was compensated by the development of an artistry of the letters that spelled the names of God and men.
But Armin made secular drawings, too. It was the Victorian era in England and all over Europe, when women had the appearance of hour glasses.
Thin waists, billowing above and below, idealized in the fashion magazines, fascinated young Armin. These ladies were his heroines. His heroes were soldiers resplendent in colorful uniforms with brass buttons. They were introduced into his drawings, along with his grandfather’s letters.
His school had the inevitable “tattletales.” When Armin sketched, somebody was sure to tell the teacher, and his drawings were confiscated, with reprimands.
Buit at the finish of his schooling, Armin was treated to an experience that puzzled his young mind. The teacher gave him back all his drawings. She had done her duty in scolding him, but she had recognized something better than childish scrawls, and refrained from destroying them.
Armin’s father was something of an amateur artist. He made “cutouts” with scissors and molded in wax — dreams, generally, of the temple and of the East. Sometimes he ornamented candlesticks.
Armin observed his father’s handicraft as he had his grandfather’s scrolls. There were willow trees back of the home. Armin selected straight, slender, graceful branches and converted them into canes, carving heads of birds, cats and dogs. But his youthful masterpiece of carving was an inkstand, which he shaped around a glass well, ornamenting it with pictures.
Left an orphan at 10 by the deaths, a few months apart, of both father and mother, Armin grew up with his older brothers and sisters. He arrived at 21 before coming to America and, in that time, got often awy from his Hebraic associations to observe the peasant and gypsy lives of the Rumanians.
Peasant motifs were to appear in his mature art after he came over here, and even now he is at work on an ambitious wood carving of a gypsy band of six musicians recollected vividly from his boyhood days.
The Rumanian peasants, he remembers, wove blankets strikingly similar to those now being made by our Indians of the Southwest.
A brother having emigrated to Chicago, Armin followed. So far he had had no formal art training. He got a job in a store in the Halsted Street district — long hours with little leisure. He sketched when he could, but the proprietor of the store regarded it as a waste of time and discouraged him.
Presently, he got another job in another store, this time with three evenings off a week. The wife of the proprietor was interested in cultural things. Armin showed her, timidly, some of his drawings. She became enthusiastic and recommended that he enter night classes at the Hull House. The recommendation was changed to the school of the Art Institute. So in 1908 Armin started his studies there.
Unlike most “rebels,” Armin was a docile student. He learned to do the fundamentals as his teachers taught them. His course was fitful, interrupted time after time by economic reverses. Jobs for an emigrant boy were few and badly paid.
In 1913 came to the Art Institute the famous “Armory Show” that introduced “modernism” to America. Armin saw the show again and again. It was no “great light” breaking into an awaiting soul. Instead he was puzzled. If Bouguereau was right, as his teachers had taught him, how could these things of Matisse be?
So he labored on for another five years. The bizarre things of Matisse and Cezanne were milling about in his brain — he hadn’t shut them out, abruptly and angrily, as nearly all the “academicians (the believers in Bouguereau) had done.
Then came to the Art Institue an exhibition by the Russian Boris Anisfeld, later to join the Institute staff as an instructor. Anifeld was easier than the French. Armin, all at once, “got the idea.” Here were sharper values and tones than he had been taught. Here things were said abruptly in paint. Here vision was rationalized. About the same time, Armin became aware of Arthur B. Davies, of crisp shadows on large heads.
He began taking stock of himself. He first went out to sketch landscapes, to see them with his own eyes — eyes taught by Cezanne (whom he now was grasping) and Van Gogh.
“I worked like a kid again,” Armin tells me.
He remembered the Rumanian peasants, the Catholics, whom he had seen in youth making patron saints with house paint — straight, stiff figures, with legs and feet straight — crude but expressive. He had acquired a lot of technical proficiency. “I have nothing against the schools — they are necessary, if not always inspiring. They make things compact, a unit.”
He remembered, too, the Rumanian Jews, his own people. He began doing Jewish figures and scenes along liens of the peasant pictures of saints. He found that it worked.
So did observers of his art, and it wasn’t long before Armin became a marked figure on 57th Street, where then lived Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, Maxwell Bodenheim, Theodore Dreiser, Szukalski, Samuel Putnam, and other eager intellectuals, aware of the new renaissance.
Armin, however, was no “rebel” just for the sake of rebellion. He had become a convert through a long, slow process of conviction. While the radical “No-Jury” Society was being formed “to show up” the Institute, Armin was acceptable at the Institute in the show of 1922 with two of his new wood carvings, “Rumanian Woman and Child” and “Tales of War.”
He threw in his lot with No-Jury (of which he is now president) and exhibited in all their shows, but he kept moving along in his own quiet, industrious way.
Presently, he abandoned Jewish subjects. For him, they had been chiefly reminiscent of his childhood and youth in Rumania. Active, developing phases of American life interested him more. He felt the urge to go to Santa Fe, where something new was taking shape, and he has returned three times. He has gone to Maine, too, and over into Ohio, and this summer to North Carolina. He has always come back from his travels with interesting pictorial notes, original impressions.