ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 86 Carl Hoeckner
Carl Hoeckner, most formidable of Chicago artists dealing with “the social scene,” is yet the least “propaganda minded.” His early masterpiece, “The Homecoming,” is perhaps the most powerful indictment of war ever painted in American, and his later pictures of the steel mills bring out with utmost intensity the stern coldness of steel, whether used for war or for the giant industries of peace.
Hoeckner illustrates his aims by analogy with the novels of Zola.
“In writing ‘L’Assommoir’,” he points out, “Zola had no thought of trying to bring about prohibition. He presented drink and its ravages as he found them in Paris. The horrors he recorded might have inspired others to use his work as the basis of prohibition propaganda, but no such purpose was in Zola’s mind in writing the novel.
Hoeckner is a strong, sturdy individualist, believing in self-expression. He refuses to close his eyes to what is transpiring around him, and whatever he finds significant to him he believes in painting.
But his paintings, let it be urged, are not “posters.” They are “social documents” — registering in the strongest, sturdiest terms he can discover or invent what appeals to his sense of justice and of right.
Hoeckner was not always thus. The first painting he exhibited in Chicago at the Art Institute in 1913, three years after he had come here from his native Germany, was a large decorative panel of Solome dancing.
“My art aims, up to the outbreak of the World War,” he tells me, “were the search for and the expression of beauty. During the war, I became interested in truth — in bitter truth and the struggle of life in general.
To Hoeckner, German-born, who had taken out only his first papers when the war broke out, the Holocaust had peculiar bitterness. Not that he was molested or unduly heckled (as were so many Germans) but that his emotions were peculiarly engaged.
His father, an etcher in Munich when Carl was born and pursuing his art trade in other German cities during his son’s youth, had designed Carl from babyhood to be an “American.” The elder Hoeckner was a profound student and believer in American democracy as opposed to the monarchist ideas of Germany and of Austria — he was born in Vienna — and foresaw with great accuracy the war into which they finally rushed with such blind fury. Carl learned to share his father’s enthusiasm for America, and when the conflict came, he found both America and Germany tugging at his heartstrings.
The very day after Hoeckner’s arrival in 1910 in America, the late Walter Ufer, painter, then head of the “art” department in the advertising offices of the Armour meat establishment, gave him a job which he was to hold for four years. Then a month or two before the outbreak of the war in 1914, he joined the advertising forces of Marshall Field’s where he remained through the bloodstained years.
Until America became officially involved, Hoeckner sent funds to his father and family. Then the curtain fell and it was two years before he heard form his father again — and then in a hospital in Vienna, cruelly ill. A sister disappeared during those dark years, and he has heard nothing of her since.
By 1916, Hoeckner had come to the turning point from beauty to the terrible aspects of war. He painted a picture that year which he called “War.” It represented savages butchering each other. It was exhibited in New York in 1918 at the Architectural League.
“Nobody said much about it,” says Hoeckner with a grin. “They didn’t recognize themselves as savages.”
“The Homecoming,” started three or four months after the signing of the armistice, was a different story. It depicted gaunt, naked men, little more than skeletons, enclosed in weather-tanned skins, hobbling back from war.
“Not any particular war,” explains Hoeckner now, “but from any war — a general experience of humanity.”
He sent it to Pittsburgh for the Carnegie International Show but it came back, promptly rejected.
The Art institute accepted it for the American artists annual of 1920. There was an ominous stir in its vicinity all through the show. The three lady critics of the leading Chicago papers discreetly said nothing, and there was no overt act to bring about an explosion. But there was general relief in “art circles” when the picture came down.
Since then, it has been frequently rejected both here and in the East, and has been publicly shown only in the show of the New York Independents in 1927 and in a little exhibition of genuine masterpieces by Chicago artists selected by me for exhibition at the Findlay Galleries during the first A Century of Progress summer.
It seems a bit too savage, too gruesome, even for a generation that can tolerate “candid camera” pictures of war. It transcends realism — it has the added savagery of a genius in hot indignation. Only Goya’s “disasters of War” can match its horrors.
A lithograph Hoeckner made of the painting, faithfully recording its spirit, is being exhibited at Paul Theobald’s gallery in the Monroe Building.
Hoeckner brooded over the war for a number of years after the armistice, but about 1926 he began to find a new interest in the mad swirl of industry headed like a whirlwind for the 1929 debacle, and in the jazz music and dancing nudity that accompanied it. The steel mills seemed to him the symbol of this era, and he pictured industrial barons and their concubines making merry in the whirr of monster wheels operated by levers in the hands of grim giants, the workers. Steel, to him, was symbolic of trends in both war and peace.
He is still in that “steel era” of his art — the “steel age” that has been providing these current weeks plenty of industrial unrest the world over — steel that is going with lightning rapidity into the arming of the world.
A number of these steel subjects, also, Hoeckner has lithographed and they, too, are on view at Paul Theobald’s.
Hoeckner comes honestly by his skill as printmaker, exhibited in his lithography.
Hoeckner’s immediate ancestor in Austria and Germany have been engravers, etchers, and lithographers since at least 1623, the first date Hoeckner has discovered for a remote grandfather, Godfried Hoeckner, who was a goldsmith. His son, Casper H., born in 1629, was a mint engraver and cameo cutter. A medal by an 18th century Hoeckner is in the Boston Museum. A cameo portrait of Schiller, executed by another Hoeckner, was owned by Goethe. The Hoeckner’s are noted prominently in Forrer’s Biographical Dictionary of Medalists, a standard work.
Hoeckner’s grandfather was a copper engraver, and his father (as already has been noted) was an etcher who practiced his art first in Vienna, the city of his birth. The fact that this Hoeckner was born in Vienna and his son Carl in Munich gave rise to considerable difficulty when Carl was getting his citizenship papers in war time. After Carl had foresworn allegiance to the Kaiser, it was found that he was technically a Viennese.
The first seven years of Carl’s life were spent in Munich, and it was there, even thus early, his “art education” began for he was destined, like dozens of Hoeckner’s before him, to be an engraver. It was in those first seven years, too, the seeds of “Americanism” were planted in his brain.
After Munich, his father went, for six years in pursuit of his trade, to Berlin. Then came Hamburg, Cologne, Leipzig, Berlin again, a return to Munich, and then Brussels. In all these cities, Carl pursued formal art studies in the various academies, though his main guide continued to be his father. By the time he came from Brussels to Chicago, he was well equipped to accept the job Walter Ufer gave him at Armour’s.
His father encouraged Carl to be a “fine” artist but also dispelled any illusions that “fine art” is a safe career for anybody who has to make a living. Hoeckner, consequently, has pursued both “commercial art” for a livelihood, and “fine art” for self-expression all these years. He finds it an ideal combination and fails to understand the alleged antagonism of the two. He thinks, indeed, the practitioner of “fine art” is handicapped when he has to make a living by it, subject to the whims of sitters for portraits and patrons for landscapes.
First excitement that transpired in Chicago’s art circles after his arrival was the “Armory Show” of 1913, which introduced the French “moderns” to America — or at any rate, brought into popular consciousness Henri Matisse (dubbed by wisecracking art foes “Henry Hairmattress”), Picasso, and “Nude Descending the Stairs.”
Hoeckner at the time was a member of the well-meaning Palette and Chisel Club, traveling even then far, far behind the art procession.
Hoeckner was almost unique among artists in Chicago, knowing what the French “moderns” were aiming at. He had read a book in German by Kandinsky, along with considerable other literature. He undertook to “explain” Matisse to Palette and Chisel pals, explanations dark even unto this day.
Hoeckner discovered eventually a few artists who “understood” — artists like Ramon Shiva, Rudolph Weisenborn, and Beatrice Levy. They brought into being Cor Ardens (“ardent heart), a name suggested by the Russian Roerich on a visit to Chicago, and this society began doing effective pioneer work for “modernism” here. Out of the agitation grew the “Salon des Refuses” (at the Rothschild store) and No-Jury.
Hoeckner, with his strong individualistic art philosophy and his intensely original war pictures, was a flaming spirit in all these movements. He was one of the four founders of No-Jury.
While he embraced eagerly the freedom of the “modernist” movement, Hoeckner has lived to be bored and disgusted, like many of the rest of us, with the pseudo-modernism that has so long cluttered museum and official shows all over America.
“As early as 1909,” he told me, “I read an article by Meler-Graefe expressing mock awe at the scores of imitations of Cezanne still life’s that were in a German exhibition. How can I be impressed by the imitation Cezanne’s in our shows of 1937?”
The Depression years have slowed up the enthusiasms of the followers of the art “isms,” and Cor Ardens and the ardor for which it stood have burned down to a charred wick.
The year the Depression struck (1929), Hoeckner became an instructor at the Art Institute, teaching particularly classes in industrial design, his life work as a craftsman. Even before coming to America, he had done illustrations for magazines, was a trained lithographer, and had participated in 1906 in an exhibition in Berlin. He was born in Munich Dec. 19, 1883.