Thursday, November 6, 2014
"The Strike", by James M Dennis Book Review (on Amazon) by Brandy Larson James Dennis’s book, The Strike, is unique in its inception as a fascinating “biography of a painting,”as well as of Robert Koehler, the German-American artist who painted the unprecedented canvas of industrial workers confronting a frowning factory owner in 1885-86. Widely exhibited in Europe and America, the painting was eventually lost in storage, rediscovered,restored, re-exhibited and ultimately purchased in 1990 by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, Germany. Professor Dennis first became aware of the painting through correspondence with Lee Baxandall, a political activist and former graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Intrigued by an engraved reproduction of the painting, Baxandall tracked it down in the early 1970s, bought it, had it restored, and found venues for its exhibition with the help of a prominent labor union in New York City. En route, he gathered mostly biographical information on Koehler’s career that he eventually gave to Dennis, hoping it could be fashioned into a book. Best known for his monograph on Grant Wood and a subsequent book, Renegade Regionalists, Dennis also has had a longstanding interest in political history, especially that of the immigrant German communities of Milwaukee and Chicago. These included radical, socialist leaders of the burgeoning labor movement that was largely born in Bismarck dominated Germany during the 1870s. Robert Koehler was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1850 and his family moved to Milwaukee four years later. His father was an independent machinist while Robert was apprenticed as a lithographer. His art talent was appreciated by a patron, a brewer, who sponsored his return to Germany where he was enrolled at the Royal Academy in Munich. The Strike was his diploma painting, an unusual subject for an“academic” painting. Large scale (over six by nine feet), it was initially exhibited from 1886 to 1894:first in New York City by the May-Day beginning of the nationwide Eight-Hour-Day Strike, then in Munich, followed by the 1889 Paris Exposition, Milwaukee, and the Chicago World’s Fair. It was finally purchased by public subscription in Minneapolis where Koehler was hired to develop and direct its School of Fine Arts. A few years after his death it was stored out of sight. The book’s front cover features a color detail of The Strike with the top-hatted owner confronted by a gesturing spokesman surrounded by fellow workers, smoky factories clouding the horizon. Eight other color plates of Koehler’s work accompany fifty-seven black and white illustrations showing his development, as well as examples of other artists who depicted workers demanding better conditions. Dennis provides a brief Introduction, an Afterward, seventeen pages of notes, and an excellent eleven-page index. The 235-page book is published by the University of Wisconsin Press, which published his very first book: Karl Bitter, Architectural Sculptor, about a Viennese artist who left his mark on the state capitol building in Madison and more extensively, Manhattan,including its Plaza with its famous fountain. The Strike is one of a series of Studies in American Thought and Culture, edited by the late Paul S.Boyer. I found The Strike to be clearly written, a trove of delightful, superbly presented insights about the artist, his career, and his masterpiece painting. Its “biography” includes fascinating details of the culture and timbre of the times, especially of the decades’ struggle by working men and women against exploitation, for decent working conditions, and living wages. While this book has special appeal for those attracted to Art History, it will be enjoyed by anyone curious about a timeless painting that survived many challenges in order to serve as a window, a kind of time capsule, of the Industrial Revolution and early modern life.