First Beatrice Wood, then Francoise Gilot, now Kate T. Steinitz--the Severin Wunderman Museum in Irvine has been devoting a generous portion of its exhibition schedule to women artists who moved in heady cultural circles.
Centenarian Wood has been much celebrated in the media and Gilot was immortalized in paint by her lover, Pablo Picasso. But Steinitz--who collaborated with Dada artist Kurt Schwitters and became a noted Leonardo da Vinci scholar in her old age--is hardly well known.
Her retrospective (through Oct. 28) reveals an artist steeped in several styles, with a humorous outlook and a predilection for small-scale, throwaway works. Her position in the history of modern art was modest--she was no innovator, after all--but her gentle wit and keen observation remain appealing.
Born Kate Traumann in 1889 in Beuthen, Germany (now part of Poland), Steinitz was exposed early on to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting by her upper middle-class parents. In 1902, the family moved to Berlin, a major art center. Among her teachers at the various local academies were the Expressionist graphic artist Kathe Kollwitz and proto-Expressionist landscape painter Lovis Corinth.
Although she married young--in 1913, to a doctor--her husband encouraged her work and her associations with local artists. Works from Steinitz's early 20s show diverse influences and media explorations, from the folkloric appearance of a lithograph ("Cowshed") to an Edvard Munch-style charged landscape surrounding isolated figures in a painting on glass ("Children on the Beach)."
The Wunderman's research director, William Emboden, a longtime acquaintance of Steinitz, rightly points out in the exhibit catalogue that Steinitz tended to make use of formal aspects of Post-Impressionism while avoiding its metaphysical content.
For example, in her painting "Four Boys" from 1919, she used the intense colors and primitivist deformities associated with the "Blaue Reiter" (Blue Rider) group but without invoking their mystic view of the universe. There is something a bit too sweet and domesticated about the central figures, one of whom plays a violin. They seem more like real little boys, seen through a haze of maternal emotion, than archetypal images.
When her husband's burgeoning career brought the couple to Hanover, Steinitz became a fixture of the local art world. The city hummed with the activities of the rambunctious Dada movement which defiantly opposed cliched art of the past. As co-organizer of one of the art colony's big social events, Steinitz whipped up a last-minute costume that included a blouse run through a printing press: an ambulatory typographical design.
In Hanover, Steinitz collaborated with Schwitters on several projects, including children's books. As can be seen in sample pages of "Hahnepeter" (Peter the Rooster), Schwitters cut up her perky drawings and sprinkled them through the typographically lively text he designed. (Years later, Steinitz would see Schwitters' "junk" aesthetic at work in Sam Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, which she helped save from destruction by civic authorities.)
A passion for the performing arts prompted Steinitz's unconvincing sketches of ballerina Anna Pavlova and images of modern dance pioneer Harald Kreutzberg and his company, whose angular style of movement better suited Steinitz's Expressionistic style. Other subjects caught by her lightly caricaturing brush and pencil included cabaret singers, a famous clown and street musicians.
After joining her family in New York in 1936 to escape Nazi persecution, Steinitz continued to find congenial entertainment-world subjects when she wasn't pursuing the free-lance commercial art work and research assignments that augmented her husband's modest U.S. medical practice.
At Coney Island amusement park, she observed the collision of bland amusement and terror in a fun house ride (grinning faces in "Rip Van Winkle" spit out tiny, clinging, faintly drawn couples). In Harlem, still in its jazz age heyday, she seemed as intrigued by enthralled patrons as by the stage show ("Two Women in Harlem").
In contrast to the vibrant sphere of human relations, landscape frequently seemed a source of starkness and despair in Steinitz's art. A pair of gnarled, bare trees contorted like an Expressionist modern dancer in "New York in Winter" conspire to render the scene desolate; ramshackle beach shacks even lend "Venice Beach, California" a moody note.
Los Angeles proved a congenial setting for Steinitz in her 50s, however. Widowed and mourning her youngest daughter, who had died of pneumonia, she initially moved to San Francisco in 1942. Through Schwitters--exiled to Norway after his work had been shown in the Nazi's notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibitions--she met a physician who not only diagnosed her persistent kidney condition but owned an impressive library of Leonardo's writings.