Modern Design and Portraits of Dignity

The many arts of Winold Reiss at the New-York Historical Society

Winold Reiss portraits
Winold Reiss, Langston Hughes, ca. 1925, pastel on illustration board, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of W. Tjark Reiss, in memory of his father, Winold Reiss.

The idea was to begin a preview on The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist, with a brief allusion to this country as seen by earlier European visitors, especially the optimism of Alexis de Tocqueville’s view of American democracy. Then I read the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, wherein Jeffrey C. Stewart opens his essay on Reiss’s portraits from precisely that angle. The premise holds: the America that Reiss encountered was different from the one described by Tocqueville. Reiss came here from Germany just before World War I, in hopes that New York City would offer more opportunity than Munich. Another draw was Native American life, about which Reiss had read in childhood, apparently unaware that New York was a long way from Montana. Finally, he was determined to bring modern principles of design to the United States. “America,” he concluded soon after settling in New York, “has no taste.”

In 1915, Reiss gave a lecture at the Art Students League entitled “The Modern German Poster,” extolling broad, colorful patterns as an alternative to what he saw as an environment too beholden to nineteenth-century conventions. Reiss was a creative force, successful as a teacher, publisher, illustrator, designer of public spaces, and portraitist. Each was a distinct discipline, yet all overlapped—perhaps it’s more accurate to say that each emanated from the same wellspring—such that they are impossible to separate. The show that opens this Friday at the New-York Historical Society is equally successful in presenting the varied facets of Reiss’s genius. That my favorite aspect of his art is his portraiture reflects not just the personal bias of a painter, but the fact that Reiss’s noble depictions of Native and African Americans provided an emphatic refutation of our most insidious cultural prejudices.

Reiss was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1886. His father, Fritz Reiss, was a painter of landscapes and peasant life. After studying with his father, Winold went to Munich in 1910, where he took classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts with Franz von Stuck and with Julius Diez at the School of Applied Arts. The earliest work in the show is an oil painting, Pierrot, that dates from just before Munich—it’s an accomplished piece that straddles the line between fine and commercial art, and foretells his life’s direction. In October 1913, Reiss arrived in New York. His first impressions were of the city’s frenetic movement and materialism. He wrote his wife back in Germany—she would join him the following year—of the “unbound wildness of the people here.” By the end of 1913, he was designing book covers for Scribner’s. Reiss soon opened his own school in the city, as well as another upstate in Woodstock. He co-founded a journal called Modern Art Collector, published from 1915 to 1918. Not even the First World War seems to have slowed him down, though given anti-German sentiment, he was counseled to keep a low profile. A month before the U.S. entered the war, Reiss produced a poster for a charity event at Madison Square Garden benefiting German widows and orphans that included flags of both Allied and Central Powers. However divided his loyalties, Reiss registered for the U.S. draft. Winold Reiss portraits

Modern Design and Portraits of Dignity
Winold Reiss, “City of the Future” mural, Longchamps restaurant (1450 Broadway, at West Forty-first Street), 1936, oil on canvas with gilt paint. Collection of the Kiki Kogelnik Foundation, New York
Winold Reiss portraits
Winold Reiss, Paul Robeson, 1924, pastel and Conté crayon on illustration board. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Lawrence A. Fleischman and Howard Garfinkle with a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The exhibition is rich in Jugendstil and Wiener Werkstätte-infused concepts, from designs for book jackets to posters, menus, candy boxes, decorative panels, radiator grills, furniture, studies for murals and interior designs. Everything Reiss produced has a powerful abstract presence, regardless of scale; he moved seemingly without effort between lively biomorphic and sparse geometric vernaculars. The graphic impact is unfailingly sophisticated, whether reminiscent in mood of medieval engraving, as in Steel Workers, or visionary, as in the City of the Future mural for a Longchamps restaurant. “From the late 1930s to the early 1950s,” writes C. Ford Peatross, “at least one hundred thousand New Yorkers a day dined, drank, shopped, or were entertained in an interior designed or embellished by Winold Reiss.” Reiss innovated the use of nonrectilinear layouts, modern materials, lighting and ventilation. He designed his first interior spaces in 1915 for a couple of New York bakeries, and thereafter was prolific as an interior designer of restaurants, bars, hotels and theaters, as well as the Music Hall for the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing. His most notable work for a public space—mention of which is conspicuously absent from the show—was installed not in New York, but the Midwest, and was comprised of sixteen mosaic murals depicting industrial scenes for Cincinnati Union Terminal.

Although Reiss’s portraits of Native Americans, Mexicans, and Germans also exist mostly outside the purview of the current exhibition, all represent important aspects of his creative life. In January 1920, Reiss left New York for the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. In two weeks, he painted thirty-six portraits, which were purchased by a single buyer when shown in New York. Reiss returned through the years to paint portraits, renew friendships and run a summer school. After his death in 1954, the Blackfeet scattered his ashes in Montana.

Reiss favored pastels for the portraits. Years later he explained: Winold Reiss portraits

I have used pastel in all my Indian pictures for the past eighteen years and have found it the finest and most brilliant technique. It of course demands a perfect draughtsmanship and knowledge of form to express in a few strokes the plastic quality of a face or body. It also enables one to work quick and one does not have to wait until it dries, which is for a traveling painter a very important fact. Pastel is very adaptable to a broad and brilliant decorative effect which is so necessary for painting American Indians.

The smudging of the pastel has never worried me in the least. I have carried pastels on horseback over many miles without spoiling them. I put a smooth paper (onion or wax paper) over the pastel when finished, put another board on top, and tie it with a string to prevent it from moving. A pastel so treated will never smudge if it is painted sensibly and has not too much pastel color on it. I have never fixed a pastel because the charm of a pastel is as Loerner also says, that the fine particles of color lie irregularly and loosely, one over another and they reflect light from many different angles. When the pastel is fixed the color particles at once arrange themselves differently in relation to one another. They absorb the fixative until they are saturated, and form into a smooth surface layer similar to a coat of paint. Therefore the charm of the pastel is lost.

The controlled stylization of Reiss’s pastels was unique. Douglas Smith, a friend and colleague who has worked with the artist’s estate since 1999, responded via email last year to my questions about Reiss’s pastel methods. He wrote, in part:

I have worked on framing dozens of pastel portraits by Winold Reiss and have never seen an accumulation of pastel dust on the glass nor along the bottom frame rabbet.

Reiss portraits in pastel and conte were primarily done on rough Whatman watercolor paper mounted on a thick paper board and sold under the name “Whatman Board.” The paper surface was strong and durable and the rough texture held the powdery mediums of pastel and conte, plus the board was easily transported. Blending stumps and tortillons were essential tools in Reiss’s pastel portrait method…. Following an initial lay in of the drawing using vine charcoal, Reiss began applying pastel or conte lightly and used blending stumps to literally force the colors into the rough watercolor paper, thus reducing excess pigment left on the paper surface.”

Modern Design and Portraits of Dignity
Winold Reiss, Girl with Blanket, 1925, pastel and Conté crayon on illustration board. Private collection

Thus armed with pastels, the ability to paint quickly, and disillusioned with city life, Reiss traveled to Mexico in the fall of 1920, this time staying for six weeks and accomplishing several dozen more portraits. The following year he returned to Europe, visiting Germany for the first and only time since his move to the U.S. As he had on the previous trips to Montana and Mexico, Reiss treated the extended sojourn as an opportunity to amass a visual ethnography, this time painting dozens of portraits of Germans and Swedish peasants. Reiss was too keenly observant of the individual to settle for abstract typology. What’s unusual about Reiss’s creativity is that he simultaneously excelled in applied arts that were intended for mass consumption, while painting portraits that were highly sensitive to specific physical and psychological characteristics. Winold Reiss portraits

Central to the exhibition, and to Reiss’s legacy, are the pastels he painted of prominent African Americans. The portraits were done to illustrate a 1925 publication, The New Negro: An Interpretation, considered the definitive anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. On the surface, they allowed the artist to explore modern style by depicting successful Black intellectuals. Charles Spurgeon Johnson, a sociologist, activist, and academic, was painted with double-breasted swag. Playwright and poet Countee Cullen is seen in black bow tie. In at least one of the portraits, that of Langston Hughes, Reiss introduced an abstract urban backdrop (he did the same in several portraits of young White female subjects, and placed Isamu Noguchi before even less defined architectonic shapes).

Winold Reiss portraits
Winold Reiss, Turtle, 1920, Conté crayon on paper. The Brinton Museum, Big Horn, WY, BMM T.1611

If the Harlem portraits offered Reiss a rationale to add modern pictorial references, they provided the more important opportunity to depict African Americans as integral to modern American culture, even if the majority wasn’t willing to acknowledge as much. Reiss’s pastels of Native Americans found a ready market, but no downtown gallery would show his Black portraits, for fear of attracting Harlem residents. When they were exhibited, it was at the 135th Street Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library.

The Hughes portrait is probably Reiss’s most well-known work. The poet leans forward at a table, chin in hand, his thoughts undoubtedly connected to the cityscape and musical notes that swirl around him. Pastels of W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Elise Johnson McDougald and Dr. Roberts rely upon the same motif: a half figure delineated on white paper with nothing more than black contour lines, surmounted by a richly modeled and piercingly observed head. The stylization transcends Art Deco illustration by virtue of Reiss’s analytical power. By leaving the bodies incomplete, the subjects’s intellects are emphasized; so, too, is their color. Reiss could be unreservedly compassionate, as in the portraits of Locke and MacDougald, but he didn’t avoid disquieting notes. Paul Robeson’s sidewise smirk has been interpreted as a reference to the character of The Emperor Jones, the Eugene O’Neill role that brought Robeson to prominence. Jean Toomer is unsettling by design, and one wonders if this is a veiled allusion to the ambiguity of Toomer’s mixed-race identity.

Winold Reiss portraits
Winold Reiss, Miss (Zora Neale) Hurston, 1924 or 1925, graphite, pastel, Conté crayon on Whatman board. Fisk University Museum of Art, Nashville, TN

Just as good and perhaps even better are the pastels of anonymous Black sitters. The Actress portrays a woman of gravitas. Harlem Girl I and Girl with Blanket are self-possessed beauties. The Librarian and The School Teachers, Type Study, are both intimate and confrontational in format. This is some of the best portrait painting of the era. That they haven’t received broader recognition probably owes to the medium—pastel isn’t usually treated on a par with oils—the fact that Reiss was not an avant-garde painter, and to race. Reiss’s greatest contribution to modern art may have been his insistence on the dignity of people, regardless of color. He saw what America could be, and a hundred years later we’re still waiting to realize the vision. Winold Reiss portraits

The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist opens July 1 at the New-York Historical Society and will continues through October 9, 2022.

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