rtists in the 20th century used to be multifarious in their activities, often taking their work through different stages or periods of evolution; Picasso and Max Ernst are two good examples of this. In today’s inflated art market this is no longer a wise move. As Brian Eno has noted in the case of the polymath Tom Phillips, the pressure is there to establish yourself as a person who does one thing only, to turn yourself into a brand: an artist sometimes becomes so successful that fans wait in line for works created in a particular style and art dealers often ask for more works in that style. Imagine Picasso being forced by an overbearing art dealer to create more Blue Period works when his interests had moved elsewhere. American artist Mark Beard objects to this kind of branding. Beard, born in 1956 in Salt Lake City, now lives in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, with his partner James Manfredi. His portraits, nudes, bronzes, and handcrafted books have been shown worldwide; he has also designed over 20 theatrical sets in New York, London and Germany. His works are in museum collections, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Athenaeum; the Whitney, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Princeton, Harvard, and Yale Universities; Graphische Sammlung, Munich, and many others, as well as over 200 private collections. In protest and in order to satisfy a desire to create in whatever styles he chooses, during the last twenty years Beard has split his overflowing artistic energy and identity into six distinctly different artistic alter-egos, each with a depth of individualized artistic product, a personal history, and a wealth of textural and photographic documentation that includes letters, exhibition catalogues and poetry. His art can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek performance art. This isn’t entirely unprecedented, Marcel Duchamp famously had a female alter-ego named Rrose Sélavy, and was photographed by Man Ray in feminine attire, but no another artist has ever gone as far as creating six distinct personas.
The book “Bruce Sargeant and His Circle: Figure and Form” (Chronicle Books, 1910), published on the occasion of the recent exhibition of the same title in New York, illustrates the wide and diversified artistic Beard’s body of work trough his five different alter-egos; Beard himself presents and comments upon a collection of the work by his imaginary great uncle Bruce Sargeant (1898 – 1938), an English painter who largely idealized and celebrated the beauty of the male form. In addition to paintings and sculpture by Sargeant, the collection also includes examples by the artist’s close circle (all Beard’s fictional creations), including his teacher, French beaux-art painter Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon (1849 – 1930); his friend and colleague, Edith Thayer Cromwell (1893 – 1962), an American lesbian avant-gardeist whose circle included Gertrude Stein and Marguerite Yourcenar; Brechtholdt Streeruwitz (1890 – 1973), the German Expressionist, a most complex personality and Cromwell’s rival ; and Peter Coulter (1948 -), the New York-based artist, one of the many contemporary artists influenced by this talented group, who represents the “third generation” as he was taught briefly by Thayer Cromwell and Streerowitz.
Bruce Sargeant, 1898 – 1938
Sargeant is the main character in this imaginary word, the one with the larger production, around whom orbit the others and the focus of the collection; actually, the one Beard seams to identify more with. In Beard’s introduction of the book his great uncle is presented with a facsimile of a four-page letter the artist wrote to a friend, in which he revealed a udding love affair with Yip, a labourer’s son, who had agreed to pose naked for him. “Yip took his break without pulling on his trousers,” Sargeant wrote, “I poured him a large gin and myself one even larger to relinquish responsibility. He stood warmly next to me. I could feel his prick, stomach, chest lightly through my clothes. He calmly touched my trousers to check if I were aroused and kissed me on the lips fully.” The relationship ended badly, but in those few lines lays the source of Sargeant’s artistic voyage. Much of his subsequent work reads like a sustained effort to relive that tender moment.
As Beard writes further on, “In his short but productive life, Sargeant clung to his faith in the figure, and exalted the body. His paintings, many of which revel in the musculature of athletes, are suffused with the Homeric romanticism that fuelled the work of such contemporaries as novelist D.H. Lawrence and composer Benjamin Britten. They are resolutely masculine, shirtless or in undershirts, with nary a woman to interrupt his reverie – or ours. Although the artist died, ironically in a freak wrestling accident, in 1938, his work has found a new audience in an age that no longer treads coyly around male sexuality. Foreshadowing fashion photographers such as Bruce Weber and Greg Gorman, it’s no surprise that one of Sargeant’s greatest pieces, a mural of seminude gymnasts, should hang in the branch of Abercrombie & Fitch on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Others can be seen in the label’s Milan and Tokyo flagships”.
About Sargeant’s work, Thomas Sokolowski (Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum Director) writes: “The pure and brilliant world of Bruce Sargeant’s art seems terribly removed from our own, unhampered by the prevalent inconsistencies of today’s world. Peopled with comely thoroughbreds, his paintings project a world of vision unchanged from the models cherished by idealists writers like E.M. Foster and Rupert Brooke in that golden decade that led up to the Great War. Neither buff nor narcissistic, his fairhaired young athletes pose, somewhat uncomfortably before the painter’s gaze, not wanting the attention yet feeling their duty to submit. Washed in Sargeant’s omnipresent bluish-gray palette, trophies and cocker spaniels stand pari passu with his sportsmen, all hovering in that never-never land of privileged youth untainted by a harsh dose of reality. Though Bruce Sargeant’s admixture would later be adopted by photographer Bruce Weber in the pages of fashion journals – covert homoeroticism employed in the service of commerce – the painter’s native and glistening adulation of his subjects will never be equalled. His untimely death on the field of sport today seems oddly appropriate. Had he lived, growing older and wiser to the ways of the world, his only recourse would have been despair. As a painter of the fatal bloom of adolescent youth and glabrous beauty, he remains unequalled”.
As well as Sargeant’s, Beard has reconstructed the other’s characters biography (he has even made a 30 minute mockumentary whith Veronica Iacono in which he plays all five, with critics discussing each artist’s work- see below), outlining their personality and their common artistic heritage: “As a friend and colleague of Peter Coulter, it is interesting for me to see a didactic lineage that we both share as well as an almost hereditary connection through my great Uncle Bruce and his colleagues”.
Hippolyte – Alexandre Michallon, 1849 -1930
The long and peripatetic artistic career of Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon began in a conventional fashion. The only son of prosperous bourgeois parents in Tours, he first studied drawing with his mother, an accomplished amateur painter of insects. His father, an undertaker who appreciated his son’s talent and supported his ambition to become a painter, sent him to Paris at age sixteen to enrol in the studio of Francois-Edouard Picot (1786-1868), an eminent history painter and professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, with whom he studied for three years, until Picot’s death. Under his aging teacher’s guidance and tutelage, Michallon entered the preliminary stages of the Prix de Rome contest at the Ecole three times, winning an Honorable Mention in 1869 for his composition entitled The Solider of the Marathon. For the next twenty years Michallon regularly exhibited paintings on historical and biblical themes at the Paris Salon, as well as commissioned portraits. By his own account, the most ambitious work of Michallon’s career was a thirty-foot canvas depicting Noah’s Ark, which he exhibited in the Salon in 1875. Michallon began painting atmospheric but zoologically correct images of exotic animals in the wild. These achieved certain popularity among French and foreign collectors alike, providing Michallon with financial security for the first time in his career. Michallon moved to England in 1893. His outstanding technical skills easily earned him a position on the faculty of the Slade School of Art in 1900. The craze for animal paintings proved short-lived. He continued to teach at Slade for the next two decades, but his classes gradually dwindled in size as the academic approach and methods he espoused went from outmoded to downright unpopular. Finally in 1922, finding himself reduced to a single pupil, the talented young American Bruce Sargeant, he retired from Slade, persuading Sargeant to leave with him and undergo private instruction at home. Several years later he retired to a cottage at St. Ives, Cornwall, where he lived quietly until his death in 1930, forgotten by all but a few former students, among them Edith Thayer Cromwell, who nursed him during his final year, and Bruce Sargeant, who designed and executed the bronze memorial plaque in his honour in the tiny church of St. Ethylburga-by-the-Sea, where he is buried in the churchyard.
Edith Thayer Cromwell, 1893 – 1962
Edith (“Eddy”) Thayer Cromwell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1893 and died in St. Ives, Cornwall, in 1962. The premature death of her mother left Cromwell the only child of a liberal father who encouraged her artistic pursuits, sending her to study at the Slade in London at the age of nineteen. It was there that she encountered Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon. Cromwell responded to her teacher’s strict discipline and the two remained friends until Michallon’s death in the Cornish cottage she would inherit from him 1930. At the onset of World War I, Edith returned to America and moved after a time in Boston to New York, where she met Charles Demuth and Mardsen Hartley. They took her to Alfred Steieglitz’s gallery, 291 and introduced her to the American avant-garde. After the first World War and the death of her father, Cromwell returned to the Slade in London and assisted Michallon in his evening classes, where she met young Bruce Sargeant in 1920. Cromwell developed an immediate rapport with the sensitive young man, encouraging him to study full-time and bringing him under the wing of the rigorous Michallon. She painted Sargeant’s portrait in 1925 and remained his lifelong friend and confidante. In 1930 she moved to New York where she lived part-time, dividing her summers between St. Ives and landscape painting trips to France and New England. Cromwell began mixing with a glamorous circle of jet-setting women and embarked upon a series of affairs. She later explored exotic themes in her work. In the mid-’50s a series of heart attacks forced Edith into semi-retirement, where she painted until her death in 1962.
Brechtoldt Streeruwitz, 1890 – 1973
Brecholdt Streeruwitz, perhaps less influenced by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon than Bruce Sargeant or Edith Cromwell, was nonetheless its product. Born in Vienna in 1985 into a burgerlich jeweller’s family, he began regular drawing classes at the age of fifteen at the Kunstgewerbeschule. The Streeruwitz family would have wished for him to continue in the family business with his brother, but his own artistic impulses made that prospect impossible. At the outbreak of World War I, Streeruwitz enlisted in the Dragoons. He was sent to the Slovenian-Italian front, where a shrapnel wound disfigured the left side of his face and forced him out of the war. At the conclusion of hostilities he spent time in Berlin and finally London, where he enrolled in the evening classes at Slade in 1920. He began a life of back-and-forth between Vienna and London. He married the upper-class daughter of the Mayor of Baden, with whom he had two children. The marriage was unsuccessful, however, and his wife remained in the family house on the Colloredogasse. Streeruwitz was apparently not well-liked at the Slade. Bruce Sargeant noted in a 1936 letter to Edith Cromwell that Streeruwitiz had a knack for saying the “perfectly wrong thing”, and after two years under Michallon, lack of funds obliged Streeruwitz to return to Austria. In 1934 the Viennese Civil War forced Streeruwitz to petition his former colleague Edith Cromwell for a place in her St. Ives cottage. Cromwell, who was a resident in the summers only, reluctantly agreed. Streeruwitz remained there until 1937, when a small work of his was included in Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. Bolstered by this perverse credential, he gained a teaching position in the art department of a London Boys’ school. Unhappy and embittered, he clung to the position through World War II, when he created his “Blitz” paintings. In 1950, interest in the artists condemned by Hitler as degenerate brought Streeruwitz a commission to decorate the dining room of a prominent New York Jewish family in their East 78th Street townhouse. It was the beginning of a series of moderate successes. He lived and showed in New York until his death in 1973, painting his “outmoded” Expressionism through Pop Art and the beginnings of Minimalism.
Peter Coulter, 1948 –
Brechtholdt Streeruwitz and Edith Thayer Cromwell’s friendship in New York led to a shared pedagogy. They taught a program of “Art in the Schools” in their last years. Their most successful pupil was Peter Coulter. The influence of their Slade training, extending back to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts-influenced teacher Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon, is expressed in Peter Coulter’s painting, King Leopold’s Ghost. Peter Coulter worked with political elements of holocausts such as the Armenian and Belgian. His work with the American slave trade and his many installations include his recent monumental work showing black rubber hands piled in the centre of a gallery floor to express the horrors of the 1890s Congo holocaust.
While writing this post, I contacted Veronica Iacono, director of the mockumentary “Bruce Sargeant: Artist” to ask her if it was possible to see it somewhere; she has been so kind to send me a copy by mail. I want hence to thank infinitely Veronica for her courtesy, and I hope to please her by attaching the video below. The movie is very interessing and, i would say, amusing. The play of multiple personality is compelling, performed with subtlety and lightness. Even if forewarned by the winking eyes of people being interviewed, the joke is revealed only at the end by Beard’s amused smile.