ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 91 Marguerite Hohenberg
It was difficult to believe what flashed on my eyes at the Roullier Galleries one afternoon in November 1937 — “abstractions” by a Chicago “unknown,” Marguerite Hohenberg, with a terrific emotional “kick.” Others made the discovery, too, and the show, scheduled to run two weeks, continued through four, with sensitive art lovers returning again and again.
Inquiry revealed that Marguerite Hohenberg was an interior decorator on the South Side, and had been painting seriously for only about a year. A few days ago, I got the information even more precise, in an interview with her. She began painting in March 1936, and here it was only November 1937 and Marguerite Hohenberg was far and away the most appealing, satisfying, and emotionally honest and interesting painter of the abstract in Chicago. Her age in 1937 was 54.
Through a “phenomenon,” Mrs. Hohenberg cannot be called a “freak.” Her abstract painting is only the culmination of a lifelong search for beauty that can satisfy her own soul. As an interior decorator of long and successful experience, she had been more or less beholden to the whims of her clients. Her abstract painting was an “escape.”
“There are painters of the abstract who feel what they do as music,” Mrs. Hohenberg tells me. “It’s not that to me. It’s the fulfillment of my strivings as decorator and architect.”
Queerly enough, however, it is poetry the lay beholder senses, and not the line of the architect or the color of the decorator. Her line is accurate and her color is glorious but they are not felt as mathematical line and planned color.
The quintessence of the magic color of Redon is sensed in one picture; the equally magic, but dissimilar color of Chagall in another. Not the forms of Redon, mind you, not of Chagall — it’s like Swinburne capturing now and then the soul of Shakespeare.
“That’s Shakespeare’s shrieking mandrake, “I exclaimed excitedly, looking at one of her new pictures the other afternoon.
“What’s a mandrake?” asked Mrs. Hohenberg, quite innocently.
I accused her of majoring, at the University of Chicago, in the modern psychologies, particularly Freud, for nearly all her abstracts in the Roullier show seemed to mew loaded to the guards with symbolism, as do her newer pictures.
No, she hasn’t read Freud, nor has she delved into the abstruse philosophies. In college, she liked French best and took every course she could find that dealt with practical application of line and form. She liked to adorn her own rooms and to help the other girls decorate theirs.
She was an “interior decorator” by impulse, before she learned the trade at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts after the University of Chicago; just as she is a painter of the abstract by impulse, without knowing the “isms” of the ponderous masters.
Marguerite, though physically delicate (or because she was physically delicate) cared more for athletics in high school than for her studies. And she cared more for mischief-making than for either. Her Latin teacher was also athletic instructor, and she had a crush on him which was reciprocated. That didn’t prevent him from expelling her from school when she brought a cat one day to Latin class, and next day locked an alarm clock in his desk and kept the key, the alarm being set to go off shortly after recitation period started.
However, after high school days were passed, Marguerite Kurz settled down to study, and has been a student every since. She married a Viennese aristocrat, Arnold F. Hohenberg, graduate of a fashionable school at Dresden, and she set out to try to live up to his ideal of her. They are still in love after 35 years.
It was after marriage that she entered the University of Chicago, traveled in Europe, began to think of interior decoration professionally, and entered the Chicago Academy where she became assistant to Leon Pescheret, her instructor in interior decoration. In 1934 when her husband’s business as a broker had reached a low ebb in the Depression, she became a member of the American Institute of Decorators — Marguerite Hohenberg, A.I.D.
About this time, for recreation, she joined the Tuesday and Friday morning sketch classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, conducted by Dudley Crafts Watson.
“Forms interesting, but not at all like the model,” was Dr. Watson’s scribble on more than one of the “exercises.” The bug of the abstract was already growing at her brain, but she didn’t know it. She was improving on a them (the model) instead of making a copy.
Then, feeling the need of a course in modern architecture in connection with her profession as interior decorator, she went back to the Chicago Academy, this time to class of Bruce Goff.
Goff, as recreation, did abstract painting, and he pointed the way to his new student. That was in March 1936.
Within a year, Mrs. Hohenberg was turning out strange, fantastic paintings that intrigued her own interest and mystified her friends.
“You ought to have an exhibition,” some of the more sympathetic told her. She didn’t know how. So she went to Dudley Crafts Watson.
“You started me,” she told him, “and now it’s up to you to help me out.”
Dr. Watson grumbled something about being too busy to visit the studios of everybody who happened to have taken a lesson from him. But being good-natured (as everybody finds out), he went — and saw — and was conquered!
He reported what he had seen to Dr. Harshe, director of the Art Institute. Dr. Harshe suspected his old friend of raving, but to humor him, arranged for a little private exhibition in his offices at the museum for a few invited guests, including some of the more progressive art dealers.
As a result, Mrs. Hohenberg received next day a telephone call from Alice Roullier, and the show at the Roullier Galleries followed.
A few visitors understood, a few (fewer) bought. There were others who scoffed.
The business of being an “abstract” artist in America is no sinecure. Ninety-nine per cent are four-flushers, copying only surface tricks and trying to palm them off as genuine creations. The remaining one percent are under suspicion.
One “old line” artist took Mrs. Hohenberg to task.
“You modernists — why, you don’t even know how to manage perspective.”
“What’ll you bet?” flashed Mrs. Hohenberg.
“A box of candy against a necktie.”
“Done, and I’ll not only do perspective, but I’ll do it in an abstract way!”
So she went home to her studio, put on her thinking cap, and presently, after a couple of days, her picture began to emerge. It was “A History of Architecture.” With skyscrapers in the foreground, she went back into history (perspective) to the days of the builders of huts along fishing streams. Not naturalistically — just abstractions, improvisations on motives, with the perspective of history translated into physical perspective.
“You win!” acknowledged her opponent when he saw the picture. Usually artists of violently conflicting schools are not so generous.
Since the Roullier show, Mrs. Hohenberg has had another in Chicago, in connection with the seventh annual conference (1938) of the American Institute of Decorators at the Palmer House. She also did the cover design for the banquet. It was an “abstraction” in blue and white, very telling.
She also did in 1938, for lectures at the Art Institute, a series of modernistic rooms on the Fullerton Hall stage.