Shades of Darkness 

Never a lighthearted painter, Raphael Gleitsmann took on an even bleaker aspect after his experiences in WWII.

"Winter Evening," by Raphael Gleitsmann, oil on fiberboard.
  • "Winter Evening," by Raphael Gleitsmann, oil on fiberboard.
Raphael Gleitsmann was asked during a 1982 interview why he had stopped painting at 44. Gleitsmann's response was both wistful and hard-boiled: "It's something like having a belief -- believing that what you're doing is of importance. When you lose the belief, it seems there's no return. Mostly, I just found I really had nothing to say anymore."

In the late 1940s, there were many who believed that Gleitsmann had a great deal to say. In 1948, the 37-year-old Akron artist edged out Andrew Wyeth to win first prize in a Carnegie Institute exhibition of international contemporary painting. That same year he had highly successful solo shows at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City and at the Akron Art Institute. What happened between this flurry of early success and his retirement from painting in 1954? A new mini-exhibition at the Akron Art Museum, called Raphael Gleitsmann: Recent Acquisitions, helps viewers to grapple with this puzzle. Though it consists of only about 20 works, the show proves that Gleitsmann's relative obscurity is unfortunate and that he deserves reconsideration.

The work on display suggests that Gleitsmann, in his postwar work, took a step back into the traditional European art that he had so cleverly sidestepped in his prewar paintings. As a fledgling artist during the Great Depression, he focused on such colloquial American subjects as town squares on wintry nights and rolling pastures (some of these early works are on display). After the war he abandoned this indigenous subject matter. At the same time Jackson Pollock was finding ways to infuse a new American vibrancy and energy into the art scene, Gleitsmann painted mood-drenched landscapes brimming with cemeteries, lone churches, and ominous skies, which evoked the 19th-century English sublime tradition exemplified by artists like John Martin. Thus, he faded into relative obscurity, not because he was a poor painter, but because his neoromantic sensibility was out of step with the times. He died in 1995, at age 85, without having gone back to painting. Today, when other eclectic mid-century American artists are eagerly being rediscovered, Gleitsmann's work can be appreciated with more clarity.

The earliest work on display, a 1932 oil called "Winter Evening," is not merely a fine achievement for a 22-year-old artist; it's a developed piece that already bears earmarks of the painter's mature style. The painting shows a snow-covered downtown Akron from the vantage of Main and Bowery streets. It is dark outside, but store windows are well-lit, and it looks as though people are doing last-minute holiday shopping. Like Edward Hopper, one of his idols, Gleitsmann revels in the everyday and the near-at-hand. However if Hopper, in his radically simplified paintings of gas stations, diners, and lighthouses, found a paralyzing loneliness at the core of American city life, the younger artist finds a Currier and Ives-like charm in wintry downtown Akron. One thing disturbs, though, and it's the source of the painting's power. In the far background, beyond the streetcars, the pedestrians, and the storefronts, is a patch of sky rendered in smoldering reds. This suggestion of slowly burning embers is like the distant rumble of a thunderstorm in an adjoining part of town. It may or may not subside before it reaches you, but it can't be ignored. Just beyond this Akron scene are seething tensions that may destroy its calmness.

Other prewar creations by Gleitsmann also find depth in commonplace subject matter. "Untitled (Oil Refinery, winter)," a 1935 watercolor on paper, demonstrates that Gleitsmann was aware of artists like Charles Sheeler, who, around this time, found hard-edged intensity in the American industrial scene. Art historian Joshua Taylor has written about how many American artists during the '20s and '30s found, in the geometrical simplicity of industrial structures, "an optimistic faith in a rational future." Gleitsmann liked the clean lines and the opportunities for formal clarity, but there isn't much optimism expressed in his watercolor. If Sheeler's refineries looked as though they had been scrubbed clean of soot, Gleitsmann's watercolor seems to say that refining raw material is tough work, and that you can't remove the grime without misrepresenting the process. The wintry backdrop here adds a sense of desolation to the scene, as do a flock of birds at far right (one must strain to notice them). Never lyrical or carefree, Gleitsmann's work was becoming increasingly dark. This oil refinery in winter is not a celebration of American industrial preeminence. This is the Great Depression, and times are bleak.

Gleitsmann's two-year stint as a combat engineer during World War II was a life-transforming experience. He was wounded in the hip by shrapnel at the Rhine River in 1945 (for which he got a Purple Heart), but psychic injuries outlasted his physical ones. Gleitsmann took a sketching kit with him wherever he went, and the exhibit has a selection of the ink and graphite sketches he made of war-torn French landscapes. These look like illustrated editorials, and there is a preachiness about them that hasn't worn well with time. They have a cartoon-like quickness, and they catch the grimness of war, but correspondents like Ernie Pyle did this sort of thing better in words than artists like Gleitsmann did in pictures. These sketches do accomplish an important task in this mini-retrospective, though. They serve as a good transition to the artist's final, and bleakest, artistic phase.

Like Krebs, the returning vet in one of Ernest Hemingway's early short stories ("Soldier's Home"), Gleitsmann on returning to Akron didn't want to talk about the war, but when, like the short-story character, he later felt the need to express himself, people didn't seem to want to listen. That's the sad story of his final years as a painter. The examples of this part of his career are of interest to the modern viewer, not merely because films like Saving Private Ryan and books like Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation have recently emphasized the sacrifices of the World War II generation, but because they are fine pieces of art that show how one individual struggled to find meaning in war.

"Memory of Ardennes," a 1947 oil on fiberboard, is one of Gleitsmann's finest works. It shows a dark and forbidding wooded landscape with trees surrounding a church at far right. The church's spire rises above the trees, and its cross suggests hope. How much hope is open to question. If one were to walk the landscape offered in this painting, one would be surrounded by a melancholy brand of grandeur on all sides. Although there is no hint of the existence of animals or birds or flowers, there is a sense of grappling with grand questions. The sky has patches of deep yellow that contrast oddly with the prevailing darkness. If this sky has light, that light does not seem to make the landscape brighter.

Fellow American artist Wyeth has something of Gleitsmann's gloominess, but the comparison ends there. Wyeth is compulsive in his meticulous attention to detail, while Gleitsmann, interested in maintaining tension across long paragraphs of thought (what musicians sometimes call "the long line"), would never care to articulate every blade of grass. Wyeth has specialized in painting sad and isolated people who never had a chance at the American Dream, but Gleitsmann, recalling the 19th-century English artist Martin, paints cataclysmic scenes in which the many moods of nature are used to illustrate moral messages.

The moral in "Memory of Ardennes" is that man is destructive, nature is unforgiving, and that the cross on top of the church spire offers what little hope there is. If this is a memory, as the title suggests, it's one that offers no false hope to the one who has it. Gleitsmann started out by painting Akron. He ended up by painting the last church in the entire world.

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