ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 87 Oscar Daniel Soellner
The afternoon of this interview, I found Soellner as full of broodings as the Melancholy Jacques of Shakespeare. On his way to keep the appointment, he had seen in the entrance to an alley a discarded bouquet of flowers. It had begun to wither, and the owner had thrown it away. Soellner stood contemplating it, absorbed. He communed with the souls of the flowers. They had served their purpose the best they could, lived out their lives, and here was the last scene of all. Soellner told me at the finish of the interview the was going home and paint those flowers. That will be a “still life” worth seeing.
Soellner is a poet among Chicago painters. He has demonstrated it to the sensitive art lovers of Chicago all these years since 1926 when “The Barn,” exhibited in the autumn show at the Art Institute, was invited all around the country. It was a tumbled-down barn that on the easel of another painter would have been overly sentimental. Soellner, with his fine sense of poetry, knows the difference between “sentiment” and “sentimentality,” and his old tumbled-down barn inspired an emotional glow even in non-emotional connoisseurs.
Soellner, like Cezanne, has left the “museums” to check art against nature. He is engaged now on a series of improvisations on simple themes that will be important — themes like the dandelion, the goldenrod, the ironweed.
Though he has a country place at Grand Detour (in addition to his home in River Forest), weeds to him are not a nuisance as they are to farmers, or even gentlemen farmers. They have their art messages, as well as roses or violets.
What may be expected of his series of improvisations is illustrated by a work already completed, but which he is a bit diffident about showing, called “Wheels.”
In a patch of weeds stand some old wagon wheels. Like the creator of a symphony — when Soellner hears a symphony, he becomes all alive, nervously inspired to paint!— Soellner put himself under the spell of wheels. The landscape back of the weed patch took on a series of circular sweeps, repeated in mountains on the horizon, repeated in the clouds in the skies. That is “abstraction” with brains.
Soellner, on a neighboring farm near Grand Detour, saw in a field a scarecrow that took his fancy, for the farmer, with a sense of humor, had made his scarecrow of an old dress suit, top hat and all — a grand spoof in faded finery. “A Country Gentleman,” Soellner calls his painting, and it was a sensation not long ago at the Chicago Galleries Association.
The gentleman must have a lady, Soellner looked around, and one Monday morning he saw her — hanging on a clothesline. There it hung, finery as femininely grotesque as the dress suit scaring crows had been. He painted, “A Country Lady” —dress hanging on line, fashionable shoes and “modern” hat to match. Everything there but the lady herself, and she isn’t needed.
One night, Soellner read in an evening newspaper a brisk and vivid article on the “jitterbug” craze. A few days before, on the South Side, he had seen a young Negro couple informally dancing in the streets, to the admiration of idle bucks and girls in the neighborhood. “Jitterbugs” came into being, and it was the sensation of last season’s show at the Chicago Galleries Association, outrivaling all the “socially significant” paintings of “jitterbugs” the WPA projects had produced, rolled into one.
He doesn’t agonize over “social significance,” like the stern-browed, woe-begone, sodden, sullen disciples of the Mexican and Russian “isms.” TO him (as to Mark Twain and James Whitcomb Riley before him) there is humor in American life — humor of a brand that mingles freely with pathos and even melancholy.
Soellner, you may have guessed from these instances, is no humdrum plodder along any ready-blazed path. He has learned his trade of painter, and he goes to original sources for ideas.
Even in learning his trade, he refused to conform. He started sketching among a party of painting friends who were “sold on blues.” To Soellner’s sensitive ear, “blue” began to sound like jargon. So he scraped all the blue from his palette, stored away his tubes of blue, and started on his own.
He painted skies just the same, and distant vistas on the lake, and they were blue. But he had analyzed the blue that he saw in sky and water and found it was a combination of other colors on his palette. He made independently the discovery Cezanne and the French Impressionists had made. Look at the fine Cezanne landscape at the Art Institute, overlooking a blue lake — look at it carefully and see how little blue there is in it. Also, while you’re at it, look at the red roofs and see how little of sign-painter’s red there is in them.
Speaking of sign painters, that’s the way Soellner began his art life as a boy on Chicago’s West Side. He was the young son of William Soellner, a carver in wood, who had come here with his wife from Munich some time before April 8, 1890, when Oscar was born. Several generations of Soellner’s had been woodcarvers in Munich, decorating churches and cathedrals. William Soellner, in Chicago, did finely carved columns and fretwork for private mansions and public buildings.
This was Oscar Soellner’s “art background,” and as a high school boy, he got quite a number of jobs in the neighborhood of his father’s home, painting signs.
He has been professionally a “merchandizing artist” ever since, though sign painting was only a youth exuberance. In his mature life, his approach to his bread-and-butter job is the same as his approach to his paintings in the realm of “fine art.” That is to say, he takes his ideas form the object itself, instead of adapting a clever idea somebody has used in advertising shoes to put across a new brand of oatmeal.
It is for this reason, I guess, that Soellner’s “Country Gentleman,” “Jitterbugs,” “Wheels,” and the like have in them no feeling whatsoever of “commercial art.” He didn’t have to cross the line between “commercial art” and “fine art,” so difficult that few of even the finest “commercial artists” ever succeed.
Soellner, while technically one of the finest painters in Chicago, having a perfect control of the ways and means of putting what he feels on canvas, has had little formal schooling. As a boy, he preferred painting signs to algebra and Latin. He had a few months of instruction under art masters but didn’t like their cut-and-dried ways. So he went to the Public Library and the Newberry Library and found what hundreds of books had to say about the art of painting.
In his leisure hours form making a living, he began in his early maturity to study flowers, plants, and tress, not as a botanist but as a poet and a lover. Some of the big trees out in Grand Detour are his ”friends” — better, more inspiring, more sympathetic companions than everyday human associates in the Loop.
He has a wife who is sympathetic and encouraging in the vagaries of his art, his poetry, and his symphonies, and they have put three daughters through the higher schools of learning Soellner himself spurned in his rebellious youth.