STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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James A. Michener Art Museum director and CEO Lisa Tremper Hanover called the new installation “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography and Sculptural Form” “significant for the Michener.”
One reason is because 1920s “Vanity Fair” and “Vogue” photographer Charles Sheeler, a founding father of modernism, kept a residence in Doylestown for 16 years. Plus, he had a fan base for his paintings of Bucks County barns.
An alumnus of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Sheeler purchased his first camera in 1910, around the time he moved to Doylestown. A few years later, using his Mercer Avenue house as a subject, he began experimenting with compositional arrangements.
Hanover added that because it features rarely-seen and recently discovered photographs by Sheeler, “it’s an exhibition that will reverberate in the art world.”
Inspired by his portrait and fashion photography for the mass media company Condé Nast from 1926 to 1931, the multimedia show is memorably accented with ‘20s fashion ensembles from the Museum of the City of New York and Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, along with Sheeler-designed textiles, all evoking the exuberance, glamour and promise of the Jazz Age.
Also rescued from obscurity is a silent film collaboration with Paul Strand — “Manhatta” — which mixes moving and still images.
Dismissed for a long time as work that a painter did as a day job, Sheeler’s Condé Nast photography — along with commissioned works for Ford Motor Company and others — has been cast in a dramatically elegant new light. Even though Sheeler himself described the non-stop deadline life of magazine work as “a daily trip to jail,” Michener Museum chief curator Kirsten M. Jensen said at a media preview event March 17 that these commercial works were actually instrumental in shaping Sheeler’s artistic vision.
“I went to the (New York Condé Nast) archives to see for myself; and the rest, as they say, is history,” she said.
While researching the exhibit, Jensen identified a portrait of artist-patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, which was used in an advertisement and previously cataloged as by an unknown photographer, as being by Sheeler.
Jensen pointed out a particular assignment Sheeler had done for a piece on fashionable hats. “A number of his photographs for ‘Vogue’ … (the editors) would focus on the faces (of the models), so they would cut off the rest of the photograph,” she said.
Stand-outs in the Michener exhibit include “Vanity Fair” serial portraits of French former light-heavyweight boxing champion Georges Carpentier dancing the Charleston, and petite Ziegfeld Follies star Ann Pennington in various period dance poses.
There are also several eye-opening vignettes, like a Sheeler “Vanity Fair” photo of Helen Menken paired with an evening gown designed for Greta Garbo, a 1939 painting by Sheeler titled “Steel Turbine” and a 1927 photo he took of the blast furnace of Ford’s Rouge Plant.
Trained in an impressionist approach to landscape painting, Sheeler experimented early in his career with compositions inspired by European modernism before developing a style now known as precisionism, with clean lines and slick surfaces. While working in this mode, he produced images, both photographic and painterly, of the 1920s Machine Age: skyscrapers, factories, power plants and locomotives. There are also examples of sculptural photography and still lifes.
Take a closer look at www.charlessheeler.org.
Just as Sheeler would go back and forth between artistic disciplines, the Michener offers a series of lectures, films and concerts that delve a little deeper into Sheeler’s creative mind and the era he was a part of.
Lecture “New Backgrounds for a New Age:” 7 p.m. April 20, cost $20 for non-members, $5 for students.
“Songs of the 1920s with the Hot Club of Philadelphia:” 3 p.m. April 23, cost $20 for non-members, $5 for students.
Film Screening of “The Jazz Singer:” 7 p.m. April 27, free with museum admission.
Concert “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Follow the Drinking Gourd: 3 p.m. May 7, cost $20 for non-members, $5 for students.
Curator’s Gallery Talk with Kelsey Halliday Johnson, Curatorial Fellow in Photography & New Media at the Michener Art Museum: 3 p.m. May 16, cost $20 for non-members, $5 for students.
Film Screening “The Big Parade:” 7 p.m. May 18, free with museum admission.
Film Screening “It Happened One Night:” 7 p.m. June 1, free with museum admission.
Lecture “Flappers and Sheiks — Jazz Age Fashion:” 7 p.m. June 15, cost $20 for non-members, $5 for students.
Film Screening “The Gay Divorcee:” 7 p.m. June 22, free with museum admission.
Charleston Dance Workshop: 7 p.m. June 29, cost: $30 for non-members, $15 for students.