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ART REVIEW

A brief time produced works of lasting effect

A Belle Baranceanu exhibition is dominated by works from a productive decade.

January 24, 2007|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Belle Baranceanu's life as an artist reads like a novella, an intriguing story of limited scope. Key characters emerge, themes are pursued and tensions partially resolved -- all in a few, compact chapters. Within her 86 years (1902-88), Baranceanu's life as an artist of note spanned just more than a decade.

An informative, sometimes stirring retrospective at the San Diego Historical Society includes a few stray, later works but is dominated by paintings and prints from the mid-'20s to the mid-'30s. During that period, Baranceanu worked in a distinctive style that brought diverse impulses together as dynamic complements: a modernist's focus on color, form and rhythm; a regionalist's attention to place; and a humanist's approach to art as a positive social force.

Even after three retrospective exhibitions (the last was at UC San Diego in 1985) and two slim catalogs, Baranceanu's biography remains spotty. She was born in Chicago to newly arrived Romanian-Jewish immigrants. Her parents separated soon after, and Baranceanu and her younger sister were raised by their maternal grandparents on a farm in North Dakota. Though she lived there until her last year in high school, biographical accounts skip over this formative phase of Baranceanu's life, picking up in 1920, when her parents reconciled and she rejoined them in Minneapolis, where they had settled.

She attended the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) and after a few years there followed her most influential teacher, Anthony Angarola, to the Art Institute of Chicago. Baranceanu's 1926 painting of Chicago's "Riverview Section" features rhythmically interlocked, clearly delineated planes of solid, muted color. However subdued her palette (a later colleague referred to her as "the queen of gray"), Baranceanu had a vibrant way with composition. In the Chicago landscape, as in much of her work, space feels compressed and intensified, real distances deferring to the dynamic relationships of planes and tones.

Baranceanu's father disapproved of the romantic turn her relationship with the older, divorced, Italian-Catholic Angarola had taken, and sent her off to live with relatives in Los Angeles. The landscape paintings and prints she made during her two years here are among the most vigorous examples of her Cezannesque faceting of form. Built structures the color of dishwater, chalk and cement angle through hilly landscapes, cushioned by dense emerald foliage and blue-black cypress trees. Similar views in lithography feel chiseled onto the page with short, insistent strokes. In both media, Baranceanu endows the land with taut muscularity.

She returned to Chicago in 1929, having decided to marry Angarola, but before the union, he died suddenly of complications from a previous car accident. In a strange and compelling self-portrait from 1930, Baranceanu enshrouds her sober, self-assured visage in reverberating waves of gray. Near the top of the canvas, a benign specter of Angarola hovers like a fading memory.

Baranceanu continued to live in Chicago for a few more years, painting and teaching. When her family relocated to San Diego in the early '30s, she tried, unsuccessfully, to get a job up the coast at the Chouinard Art Institute. In 1933, she joined her parents in San Diego and remained there until her death.

Around the same time as the move, she changed her name to Baranceanu (her mother's family name) from her birth name, Goldschlager. Whether the change had to do with anger at her father for resisting the match with Angarola or wanting to distance herself from his Germanic, Jewish-sounding surname is another aspect of her identity not fully understood.

A few landscapes in the show originated in San Diego, but most of the work, including several striking portraits and some earnest but less remarkable female nudes, were made before the move. Baranceanu's reputation in San Diego rests largely on her work as a Works Progress Administration muralist. For the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, she painted "The Progress of Man" (still extant), a celebratory survey of human accomplishment in art, science and industry. In another mural, since destroyed, Baranceanu depicted "The Seven Arts" in what became her characteristic style for large-scale commissions: crisp, solid figures engaged industriously in the betterment of society. Whereas the figurative murals owe a heavy debt of influence to Diego Rivera and Alfredo Ramos Martinez (who was working in San Diego in the '30s), Baranceanu's painting of the local coastline, commissioned for (and still viewable in) the La Jolla Post Office, feels substantially more fresh and personal.

Baranceanu also illustrated a few books and created a series of block prints, but these are minor footnotes to her career. By the time the gig with the WPA ended, so, it seemed, had her contribution to an art history of individualized passion and innovation. After the war, she settled into the city's cultural groundwater, teaching art at a local private school and becoming a treasured member of that more intimate community. A soft ending for a tale briefly more expansive and exhilarating.

*

`Belle Baranceanu: The Artist at Work'

Where: San Diego Historical Society, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Ends: May 29

Price: $2 to $5

Contact: (619) 232-6203; www.sandiegohistory.org

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