Clara Deike (1881-1964)
Clara Deike, Unknown Painting, 1918-1950. Tregoning Fine Art, LLC, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 2005.
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Clara Deike: Unknown Paintings
This collection of works currently on exhibition by Clara Deike was assembled in the artist’s lifetime by a close friend and patron of the artist, Harriet L. Goodyear. The quality of these paintings in the Goodyear Collection is often exceptional: Still Life with Hydrangea, for example, which won first prize in the May Show in 1928, is one of the landmarks of Deike’s artistic career. Equally significant, this group provides a rare, even a unique opportunity to see paintings by Deike across the full range of her professional activity, from 1918 well into the 1950s. We are able to chart the full trajectory of her artistic development.
Clara Louise Deike was born in Detroit in 1881, but grew up in Cleveland, attended high school here, and earned an associate degree in education from the Cleveland Normal School in 1901. In 1909, after several years of teaching elementary school in Ohio and Kentucky, she studied for a term at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The next fall, however, she shifted to the Cleveland School of Art, where she studied with Frederick Gottwald (1858-1941) and Henry Keller (1870 -1949).
There were not many career choices for a woman in the arts who needed to support herself. After graduating from the Cleveland School of Art in 1912, Deike taught art in public schools for more than thirty years, retiring in 1945. She never married. Indeed, in this period, women who taught school were not permitted to marry, and lost their jobs if they did so.
She worked largely alone. Nine months a year she taught and painted a little on the side; she devoted the summers to travel and study, and it was then that she produced most of her work. Like many notable Cleveland artists, she was encouraged by Henry Keller, and attended his art school in Berlin Heights from 1910 to 1920. Keller was academically trained in Munich, but was enthusiastic about modern art, and with his encouragement many of his students, notably Charles Burchfield ((1893-1967), embraced modern and visionary approaches. In addition, Deike’s worked with figures outside Cleveland, including Hugh Breckenridge (1870-1937) with whom she studied in Gloucester from 1921-23; Ernest Thum (1889-after 1940) with whom she also studied in Gloucester; and most significantly, the modernist Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), with whom she studied both in Munich and Capri from 1925-27.
The Lakewood Public Library sponsored her first solo exhibition in 1918, and she held several exhibitions at the Woman’s Art Club, a professional organization that she co-founded in 1912. Every year she exhibited in the “May Show” staged annually by the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she won occasional awards; her unbroken exhibition record in that venue was astonishing: 1919 to 1959. Her reputation was largely a local one, although she did occasionally participate in group shows at the Kraushaar Gallery in New York, and she exhibited at the Gloucester Arts Festival in Massachusetts. Most of her patronage seems to have been local, as is the case with this collection: Miss Goodyear, who assembled it, was Deike’s supervisor at Lakewood High School where she served as Assistant Superintendent.
Let’s look at the paintings! A colorful early scene of buildings, suggests the origins of Deike’s approach. The location is generally given as Gloucester, although the date of 1918 suggests that it might possibly portray Berlin Heights; more convincing would be some nearby Lake Erie shoreline community. The style is decorative and pleasing. The sun-filled colors derive from Impressionist painting, but the clear, clean forms relate to the decorative posters of the period, as well as to color woodcuts, which were undergoing a revival at this time. Indeed, Deike is known to have made linoleum cut prints – likely the result of being in the Gloucester artist colony, with such people as Blanche Lazzell (1878-1956). The popular Cleveland artist, Ora Coltman (1858-1940) worked in a similar vein, but Deike’s canvas is more interesting than those of Coltman both in its more varied color handling and more vivid sense of observation. Just follow the road in this scene and you can observe the skill with which Deike handled color. It contains yellows, greens, pinks, mauves, lavenders, purples, and many other hues.
Just a few years later, in 1925, Deike’s color sense exploded in Crystal Globe and Flowers--a prize winner in the 1925 May Show. The painting exalts strange color effects. Its rich mix of blue and green, pink and lavender, mauve and ultramarine, brings to mind the work of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). The intensification of color in this painting shows Deike’s interest in modernist experiment, but as yet this modernity was more evident in her use of color than in pictorial structure.
The key turning point in Deike’s work occurred from 1925-1927, when Deike studied with the noted modernist Hans Hofmann both in Munich and in Capri. Hofmann later achieved fame as an abstract expressionist and mentor to many of those in the Abstract Expressionist group. Around 1940 he began making non-objective paintings, Hofmann’s early career as both painter and teacher, however, remains much more mysterious, in part because most of his early paintings were destroyed in a fire. Deike’s paintings from her period of study with Hofmann are significant works in their own right. But since they were clearly heavily based on Hofmann’s example, they also provide interesting evidence about what his work looked like, and about how he taught.
In the 1920s, Hofmann was combining the two main movements of modern art of the period: the Cubist form of Picasso and Braque, and the Fauve color of figures such as Matisse. But he had not yet liberated color and form from representation, as he would later in life, when he joined the Abstract Expressionists. At his stage, his explorations of color and form were still tied with recognizable subject matter.
For the remainder of her career, Deike remained within the idiom she learned from Hofmann in the 1920s—that is, she translated the world of appearances into cubist forms enlivened with Fauve color. Since she did not study with Hofmann later, she never learned his Abstract Expressionist approach, although her later paintings do become more complex and faceted in a way that becomes somewhat analogous to the “all-over” look of the Abstract Expressionism that began taking over the art world in the late 1940s.
That Deike’s Capri paintings were produced under the tutelage of Hofmann initially comes as a surprise. Capri has been a playground for the rich since the days of the Emperor Tiberius, who amused himself by throwing prisoners off the island’s spectacular cliffs. At first glance, Deike’s paintings seem purely hedonistic: visions of villas overlooking the sea that might illustrate some short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. They clearly belong to the decade that invented sunbathing. A closer look, however, reveals that the paintings have an unusual sense of design. The formal organization is basically cubist, although we tend to overlook this fact as we become mesmerized by the brilliance of the pink buildings and the lapis lazuli sea. Le Case, Capri of 1927, in fact, is basically a study in shifting cubist planes.
In Munich, the light was dimmer, and this brings out more clearly the seriousness of Deike’s formal investigations, carried out under Hans Hofmann’s guidance. One of the key paintings of Deike’s career is her Still Life with Hydrangea, which she painted in Munich in 1927 and which won first prize in the Cleveland May Show the following year. While the painting never loses a sense of naturalism, the forms are derived from Cubism, the color from the Fauves. Every form is slightly faceted, in a cubist manner; but the colors are not the cool grays and browns of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), but are pushed up a few stops, to something approaching the luscious pinks of painters such as Henri Matisse (1869-1954).
Perhaps the strangest and most remarkable of these early Hofmann-esque works is a likeness of a woman in peasant costume, with one arm looped through what seems to be an empty picture frame. The woman is apparently Deike herself: the empty picture frame may allude to the mysteries of the picture plane that the painting explores.
Some significant questions surround the piece. It has been previously ascribed to Deike’s Mexican excursion of 1930, on the grounds that the dress appears Mexican. But the costume might equally as well be viewed as Central European, and the general effect brings to mind painters of Central Europe. For example, there is an echo of the Russian mystic Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941) in the iconic inscrutability of the face and the mystical effect of the color. For that matter, there is also a touch of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) in the emphasis on abstract shapes and the woman’s impassive expression.
Whatever its date and place of origin – Mexico or Munich – the significance of the piece is that it shows Deike exploring Hofmann’s pictorial ideas, his synthesis of Cubist form and Fauve color, in a particularly bold and radical fashion. Every shape in the painting, from the woman’s shiny forehead to her stumpy fingers, is translated into cubic or prismatic shapes, as if she were shaped like some strange Japanese robot. Some of these shapes are marvelous, such as the squared-off shape of the sleeves as they fold under the wrist. The color of the painting, however, is far afield from the restrained, almost monochromatic effects of Picasso and Braque. It takes on an expressive life of its own, influenced by the Fauves. In many places, in fact, such as the upper part of the costume, the handling of color contains a hint of Hans Hofmann’s exuberant later work, in which the push and pull of color, detached from representation, becomes the subject of the picture.
Clara Deike loved to travel, and what is fascinating is to observe how her basic Cubist idiom took on a different character as she moved from place to place. The artist visited Mexico and New Mexico in 1930. Some sources state that she studied with Diego Rivera (1886-1957), but Rivera’s influence in not very evident in her work, and most likely her contact with him was relatively casual. In fact, the effect of Deike’s Mexican watercolors, such as Burros, Mexico, of 1930, less resembles the work of Rivera than the rough, vigorous draftsmanship of his contemporary, Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). What seems to have impressed Deike was the difficulty of life in Mexico, and the harshness of the landscape. A watercolor of Taos, New Mexico, executed in the same year, shows a similar approach. It portrays Blue Mountain, the sacred mountain that rises above the Taos Pueblo. Deike’s intensely emotional simplification of the scene brings to mind the work of Marsden Hartley (1878-1943), who painted the same subject.
Somewhat more emotionally restrained are Deike’s striking watercolors of Gloucester, a town favored by great American painters since the 1860s, when it attracted Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Deike looked out on Gloucester and found Cubist compositions. My favorite of Deike’s views shows a green house with laundry in the foreground, against a background of cubic buildings that climbs a hillside into the distance. Despite the complexity of the pattern, and the criss-cross visual movement, the design feels orderly and graspable.
The feeling of these paintings is quite different from the glamorous Art Deco world of Capri. They have the sobriety of a sea town in New England. Works such as this are exactly contemporary with Gloucester scenes by other major American artists, such as John Sloan (1871-1951), Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Stuart Davis (1894-1964). Like the work of these masters they show a sober effort to find grandeur of form in a mundane setting, and to create something grand and noble out of an ordinary American scene. The poignancy of Deike’s paintings comes from the fact that Cubist complexity of design coexists with subject matter that is utterly ordinary.
By the mid 1930s, however, most of her oils exhibit a full-blown Cubism, as is evident in Still Life with Regal Lilies of 1935. From the same year dates her Still Life with Red Mums which represents a kind of short-hand version of the Cubist style. In it she simplifies he usual cubist language into vigorously outlined shapes, somewhat reminiscent of painters such as Bernard Buffet (1927-1999).
Over the next two decades this style essentially grew more elaborate. In particular, Deike made her backgrounds more complex, and found ways to interweave them with the foreground subject. In Still Life with Canterbury Bells of 1941, the complex background of draperies and patterns competes with the flowers for our attention. In Still-Life with Lilies of 1945 the background of leaves and rocks forms a still-life as complex as the one in the foreground. In her early work Deike used clear contrasts of light and dark to distinguish foreground and background. In her later work she employed tones that are often remarkably close in color and value, creating interplay between foreground and background that is remarkably subtle. Interestingly, as her designs grew more complex, her colors grew somewhat murkier, and she increasingly tended to stress tones of dull orange and mauve.
One of the most fascinating of these late paintings is Gloucester, 1950, a scene of a wharf and boathouse, whose formal rhythm is so complex that it is difficult to take in the whole scene at once. Instead the individual vignettes compete with each other, in an ever-shifting series of visual movements. Such intricate compositions, however, must have been fiendishly difficult to plan. In her latest paintings, such as Low Tide, 1950, a scene of seagulls snapping at a cargo of fish, Deike adopted an approach which was more decorative and anecdotal, and probably more appealing to the tourists who liked to purchase Gloucester subjects.
Sadly, Deike received very little attention in her lifetime. She never obtained one of the prestige positions in the Cleveland art world, such as a teaching post at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She always stood somewhat apart from the general art scene. She never joined the party crowd at the Kokoon Klub; she never joined the WPA; and she was not part of the artistic coterie who maintained studios in the Rockefeller Building in downtown Cleveland.
Despite regular shows, in her lifetime – at the time of her death in 1964 – she had never received a serious review. Her work was appreciated for its decorative qualities but not for its sophisticated mastery of Cubist and Fauve techniques. The first significant appreciation of her work came in 1989, twenty-five years after her demise, when Helen Cullinan of The Plain Dealer wrote a warm appreciation of a retrospective show of 25 paintings, organized by the Vixseboxse Gallery in Cleveland Heights.
Today Clara Deike stands out as one of the small handful of Cleveland artists, such as William Sommer, who advanced beyond skillful technique to embrace a modern idiom. Most of her paintings explore the language of Cubism, a style she absorbed through the teachings of the noted painter Hans Hofmann, whom she studied under in both Munich and Capri. We are accustomed to Cubism that looks French, but Deike’s version of Cubism, like much of the best art produced in Cleveland, often speaks with a Central European accent. While she never followed Hofmann into his Abstract Expressionist experiments, her work provides a rich analysis of the principles that he explored early in his career. Few Cleveland artists have produced such a body of accomplished and original work.
Henry Adams, PhD (April 2005)
Adams PhD, Henry. Clara Deike, Unknown Paintings 1918-1950:: Tregoning Fine Art, LLC, 2005).