ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 66 Rifka Angel
In the full flush and vigor of her creative energies, Rifka Angel, who made her advent in the Chicago scene in 1929 and for five years was the stormy petrel of Chicago art, had no equal in America and few in the world for naïve and primitive expression. On her advent, she was a cute little art anarchist, regarded in official and learned art circles as a petulant spoiled child. But the few of more discernment who took her seriously gradually convinced their duller-witted superiors that Rifka was to be reckoned with. Ultimately, she was received into the fold; in other words, found herself accepted in the shows at the Art Institute.
Then something happened to Rifka. As long as she was the cute little anarchist, she painted pictures that were emotionally stimulating, full of the spice of naïve wisdom and wit, plaintive, humorous, human, provocative, teasing, impish, and ingratiating. When she found herself with a reputation to sustain, she became self-conscious, undertook to “learn art.” As her technique improved, her inspiration dwindled with twice or three times the swiftness. The Art Institute exhibited her own limitations of her erstwhile self, a little better technically maybe, but with the “elan” all gone. And without their elfin sprightliness, Rifka’s pictures are commonplace. She has some intimate imitators who can do the husks — the outer semblances — as well as she.
But Rifka is young and it is not impossible that she will throw off the handicaps of her new “education” — an education her earliest discoverers in New York, artists of wisdom and perspicacity, specifically warned her against when she, an artists’ model for dancing figures, surprised them, like Suzanne Valadon, by turning artist herself.
Rifka is a Russian Jewess, born in the town of Calvaria where her grandfather was a wealthy brewer and wholesale dealer in beer. Her father was little inclined to business and spent his time writing poems and essays, which were printed in the Hebrew journals, or painting on glass, or doing exquisite embroidering of textiles.
Presently, he emigrated to New York and Rifka, when she was 13, followed him. An older sister stayed in Russia, and she is not a teacher in Moscow, high in the educational system of the Soviets. Rifka, whose mature art tastes run to the exotic and barbaric, admits with a shrug and a laugh that her most vivid recollections of Calvaria are of painted ladies who lived in a big house a block or two away, and who sometimes leaned out of windows scantily attired and beckoned passing gentlemen to climb the stairs.
However, she played quite happily with her dolls — lady and gentlemen dolls — who she dressed in remnants of her father’s textiles originally and after her own ideas. She devised for them little dramas — once she invited all the children of the neighborhood to a wedding of two of her favorites. After the wedding, she presented the happy couple with a pair of infant dolls.
The dolls rapidly faded in interest when she was about 11, on her discovery of the fiction of Tolstoy, Dosteovski, Chekhov, and Andrev, and from that time to the present she has been an ardent reader — sometimes to the neglect even of her painting.
Her father came to America to improve his fortune, but with little material success. Within a year after Rifka joined him, she was working in a sweatshop in the ghetto of New York, contributing her bit to the family earnings. She went to night school where she rapidly learned English, which she speaks without an accent, and so well that her teachers before long were complimenting her on her English composition.
\Her education was interrupted by the outbreak of the World War, which prevented her mother and sister from coming to America to join her and her father. Rifka became an active member of a Jewish organization fighting for the cause of Palestine. Then when the Lenin-Trotsky revolution broke in Russia, she was one of the young ladies of the New York ghetto who threw themselves heart and soul into the furthering of the cause of their once fellow Manhattanite, Leon Trotsky.
Rifka, vibrant with energy, took up at this time ballet dancing. A boy friend was a student at the Academy of Design. She sometimes met him there at the end of his classes. One afternoon when she was waiting, the young woman secretary of the school noted and admired her “classic head,” and Rifka began her career as a model. She specialized in dancing poses, learning to hold for as long as ten minutes on her strong toes a movement of the dance that takes only a moment to execute. Some of the airiest of dancing girls in contemporary New York sculpture are Rifka.
As model, she was thrown naturally into the circles of artists, and the urge she interite3d from her father came to the fore. It was Emil Ganao who urged her to take up painting seriously, saying so expressive a model ought to paint interestingly. He lent her a box of watercolor paints, and another artist friend supplied her with watercolor paper, and during a sojourn of ten weeks in the Catskills, where she went to recuperate from a period of illness, she produced her first pictures.
Ganao was highly pleased. Ernest Fiene was so struck with them that he traded her two pictures of his for two of hers. Alfred Maurer warned her against art schools and formal art instruction — a warning she observed, to her advantage, for several years, until she fell under influences that persuaded her to “improve her technique” — with the lamentable results I have already pointed out.
A little exhibition was arranged for her at the Jewish Art Center, and favorable reviews in the Jewish papers made her something of a ghetto celebrity. The next year, the Opportunity Gallery, operating in broader circles, exhibited some of her things, and the New York art dealer, E. Weyhe, and the president of the New York Independents, John Sloan, became interested in her work.
At this juncture, her sister, now established in the educational system at Moscow, invited her to come to Russia for a visit. Critical friends in her sister’s circle found her cute little pictures “rather futile,” and urged her to paint “the workers, their homes, their clubrooms — in accord with the ideals of the new Russia.”
Nevertheless, one of the largest art academies of Moscow accepted her as a student, despite her woeful deficiencies in the higher mathematics, the material sciences, and the system of economic according to Marx. She had fancied herself in New York a pretty good Russian revolutionist, but when she got to Moscow she found herself a novice, even among the young students. It was David Sternberg, a Russian friend of Picasso and the Paris moderns, who saw in her pictures what she was driving at, and who used his executive position in the academy to have her admitted.
When it came time for Rifka to come back home, via Paris, Sternberg gave her letters to Matisse and Chagall, but lack of funds cut short her stay in the French capital. Six weeks after she landed in New York, she came to Chicago — and to “fame.”
She registered first with a self-portrait in the No-Jury show of 1929. The next spring, Tom Garrity of the Knoedler Galleries gave her a one-painter exhibition, which was greeted with hoots of derision. Another show at Knoedler’s the following spring was received with more respectful attention, and it wasn’t long before Rifka was “canonized” by admission to the sacred walls of the Art Institute.
Meanwhile she had married and “Blossom” had appeared — “Blossom,” the little girl who turned Rifka’s talents to the painting of children. Before that, she herself had been her favorite model, as is very often the case with women painters and a few men.
Depression years proved hard for her and her artist husband, Milton Douthal, also a translator, and a year or so ago they returned to New York where Rifka, this April, had an exhibition in a new gallery in the 57th Street district.
Rifka, when at her best, helped herself spontaneously to charming little motifs all around her ghetto and Bohemian types of men and women. After becoming self-conscious, she turned to Giotto and other fellow “primitives” of hers in ages gone, whose “technique” she found superior to her own. But her “technique,” faulty as it was, was good enough for her own playful little visions.