No. 74 Fritzi Brod
In Fritzi Brod’s subconscious, beautiful flowers and beautiful women are identical, and in her fantasies that find their way to canvas they are intimately commingled, either seldom existing without the other. They are of equal consequence, of identical aroma. Sometimes, like Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel,” her lady holds three lilies in her hand, or two, or four, or they may be roses — and the fragrance, like the Damozel’s, is all-suffusing. Sometimes the flowers appear as a pattern in her dress, as important as her eyes or her decorative fingernails.
Fritzi Brod made her advent in Chicago in January 1924 as Fritzi Schermer, designer of textiles. They were among the first of “modern” pattern that the Marshall Field store displayed. She came with considerable German reputation, a Saxon magazine, Schmuckformen, having spread the fame of her patterns, of which, despite her youth, she had done some 100. It was not until the first open-air art fair in Grant Park in the summer of 1932 that Fritzi Brod came into the consciousness of the “bohemia” of Chicago as a painter of human figures — her exotic girls with flowers.
She is an Austrian Jewess, born June 16, 1900, in the city of Prague (since the war Czechoslovakian). On her father’s side, she is Sephardic, of mingled Spanish and Dutch Jewish descent. Her mother was of a line of Austrians who, for generations back, were rich farmers and brewers. She was brought up in luxury, sheltered, sent to private schools.
But her mother didn’t leave her “education” entirely to the professional tutors.
She herself was a minor painter, on china and fans, as befitted a leisurely young lady of her times, her place, and her social stratum, and was an accomplished musician. She was delighted when Fritzi showed talent as a painter and Fritzi’s younger sister (by two years), as a musician. Their brother, who in later life has developed into a substantial businessman — and stamp collector — was a poet, with ambitions to rival Heine, ornament of the Germanic Jews.
Vacation times, Frau Schermer took her two girls visiting the art galleries and the centers of music over all Austria and Germany, resting then in some watering place for the hot months. It was thus that Fritzi saw Pavlova and her ballet, with designs by the Russian Bakst, and she proceeded to invent a lot of ballet girls of her own, teaching them dance steps that grew out of her fantasy, and clothing them in all sorts of gay costumes, always embroidered with flowers. She filled a whole sketch book with these elfin creatures, which unfortunately Pavlova never saw.
At the rustic watering places, Fritzi Schermer went out into the gardens to paint the flowers. These she did with meticulous exactness, mixing her colors until she got the precise shades of nature. She didn’t know it at the time, but it was these flowers that were to become motifs in the creation of her fairy ladies.
Presently, after finishing at the girls’ schools, she entered the Kunstgewerbeschule at Prague, the city’s art school, where she mingled for the first time with students of all strata of life. Talent here counted, instead of either blood or wealth. A severe examination had to be passed for entrance. Fritzi Schermer was one of 22 who passed. (It will be recalled that Adolph Hitler, another Austrian, failed on an examination of this sort in Vienna, and had to become dictator of Germany instead of a painter.)
Fritzi Brod doesn’t recall distinguishing herself particularly in either the Kunstgewerbeschule or various private studios around Prague, where she studied and painted. She had no idea of becoming a professional painter any more than her sister had of becoming a concert pianist. They were just to be accomplished daughters of an accomplished mother, to marry well, and live happily and domestically ever afterward.
It was the advent of Oswald Brod in one of the watering places where she was vacationing with her mother that changed her outlook. Brod, Viennese by birth, had gone to America, had become an American citizen, and was now back in Austria on a buying expedition for the New York book store of Brentano. He had gone for two months. But after meeting Fritzi Schermer, he stayed for two years. Then he had to come back to America to keep his American citizenship from lapsing. Brentano’s sent him to Chicago to take charge of the art book department of their store. Presently, he sent for Fritzi Schermer to join him here as his bride.
It was Brod who set her the task of doing textile designs. Fritzi alleges that he did it to keep her eyes from wandering in the direction of young Austrian officers on leave from their post-war military duties.
Textile designing occupied the leisure hours of young Mrs. Brod in her first years in Chicago. Then she got restless to be an “artist.” She entered Raymond Katz’ combined studios and art gallery in the Auditorium tower — the so-called “Little” Gallery that for a time was the most important agency in Chicago for the finding and exhibiting of new talent.
The crackling atmosphere of the Little Gallery, where she was on the sales force, and her mingling with artists — her first real plunge into “bohemia” — set her sketch pencil rapidly to work, sketching this time feminine figures instead of her textile abstractions — but even so, abstract and decorative. Katz was one of the few who saw the sketches to recognize the originality and vitality of her unique fantasies. Frequently after she had dashed off a drawing, he would send her home. “Take advantage of your mood,” he would tell her.
It was in this first burst of creative energy, long pent up, that Fritzi Brod produced the strange, exotic feminine creatures with their fantastic flowers that were a sensation of the Grant Park Art Fair — exciting, laughter or scorn in the great majority of beholders — recognized as a new and not only highly original but highly expert art expression by a discerning few.
Presently, by the slow process of evolution by which real merit in art makes its way, Fritzi Brod became recognized as a leader among the artists, even the plodding Art Institute of Chicago finally waking up. This summer, she is included among 19 painters invited for the “summer show” now current.
In her development, she has lost too much of the explosive, exuberant, mad energy that made her early things exhibited in the Grant Park Art Fair akin to Toulouse-Lautrec’s without being even remotely suggested by them — a kinsman, in their poetry, to Rossetti. She has gained in technical mastery perhaps — not that she draws or even paints better, but she rationalizes more her “pattern.” The gain doesn’t offset the loss.
The best of her recent things I have seen with something of the old fire and a lot of the new capability in organizing is “Sunday Morning,” in the group of her pictures at the Art Institute. It is the third or fourth version of an idea that has been milling around in her head for two or three years and already she has the canvas stretched to do a big final painting in oil.
“Sunday Morning” in a Catholic church might seem a rather unusual obsession for a Jewess, neither particularly race conscious nor religious. But in her home in Prague, her family, like most of the unorthodox Jews, observed such Christian festivals as Christmas and Easter in the spirit of their neighbors. A Christmas tree was a regular annual recurrence. She knew the cathedral as well as she did the synagogue — and the theater and the opera house better than either. In her “Sunday Morning,” Fritzi Brod has composed the prayer each of her worshippers is offering up. Each prayer is a part of the “emotional content” of her picture.