On October 3, 1948, at 3:50 pm, Peter Blume finished his epic painting, years in the making, titled The Rock (shown above). “After a turbulent decade in which Peter Blume embarked on false starts, endured debilitating anxiety, experienced self-doubt, and found his faith in the creative process renewed,” Robert Cozzolino writes in the catalog to the new exhibition Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, finishing The Rock must have been a great relief. Blume recorded that date and time the way many record the birth of their children, for The Rock was his precious baby, but completing it marked a rebirth of sorts for Blume as a different kind of artist. Shaped by political and artistic currents of the first half of the 20th century, Blume emerges as a difficult to categorize artist, but also as a fascinating visionary who struggled to paint a personal reality clinging to the foundation of hope.

“My realism is not real,” Blume explained late in his life, “I mean, it’s realism on another level altogether. It’s ‘real’ but it has nothing to do with a photograph. It’s not what anybody else sees, it’s only what I see… Not even what I see but what I think ought to go into something to make it ‘real.’” Blume took things he saw in real life—from the places he lived or traveled to, to the Flemish and Italian Old Masters he studied, to the photographs of war and the Holocaust—and reassembled those images idiosyncratically in his paintings based not on some rational cause and effect but rather on a sense of synchronicity. Whereas Blume’s almost exact contemporary Francis Bacon called himself “a grinding machine” that “ground up” experiences and influences “very fine,” Blume lets us see his experiences and influences nearly whole, but recontextualized into a new kind of “real” addressing the very real needs of the artist and his age.

Because of Blume’s elusive brand of painted reality, art historians during his lifetime and posthumously tried to pin him down with labels, primarily that of Surrealism. However, as Cozzolino points out, “Blume rejected Surrealism as too rigid and dogmatic and also not having gone far enough.” Whereas Surrealism “dreams” its reality, Blume actually sees his. Fiercely independent, Blume fought off “isms,” groups, and even second opinions that he felt interfered with his deeply personal approach. Blume’s independence, sadly, cost him mainstream appeal. This exhibition, the first retrospective of Blume’s art since 1976 (and the first posthumous show since his death in 1992), aims at “undoing a cycle of repetition that privileges the same unchallenged modernist narrative” that curator Cozzolini sees as not only unfairly marginalizing outsiders such as Blume, but also unhealthy in terms of dogmatic narrowness. Robert Cowley, son of poet Malcolm Cowley and friend of Blume, dubs Cozzolino “the curator of the dispossessed,” a well-earned title judging from this remarkable exhibition.

The exhibition Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis is one of those shows where you really need to take your time, read the wall text (and the beautifully written and illustrated catalog), and let Blume’s world blossom in your head. Blume’s works are so packed in terms of content and style—inseparable elements in his approach—that you need to unpack such works as South of Scranton, Light of the World, The Eternal City, Tasso’s Oak, Recollection of the Flood, and The Rock.

The Rock, for example, encompasses personal and public events stretching from 1938 to that final day in 1948. Cozzolino begins the story of The Rock with the fallout of The Eternal City, whose green-hued, Jack-in-the-Box depiction of Benito Mussolini earned Blume rejection in the pre-World War II days when American and Italy were still on diplomatic terms and fascist sympathies were still socially acceptable to a degree. When Edgar Kaufmann commissioned Blume to paint his new home, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Blume’s struggles to deliver mounted up into a full-scale crisis of confidence. A foray into automatic drawing freed Blume up to gather together such seemingly disparate events as the heated conflict of World War II, the Cold War chill of atomic bomb fears, the aesthetic challenge posed by Abstract Expressionism, and the discovery of the suicide of his friend and fellow artist Arshile Gorky in July 1948, just as The Rock was reaching completion.

In the end, Kaufmann accepted The Rock as the fulfillment of the Fallingwater commission, mainly out of appreciation of how the work marked the fulfillment of Blume as an artist. “The Rock and its challenges taught [Blume] to trust his intuition; simply put down all of his ideas with whatever was at hand; and then test, define, rethink, work around every angle, turn things inside out, and allow for change and accident,” Cozzolino concludes, ultimately calling the painting “a cenotaph of hope, a grand allegory of renewal,” for an artist and a world rebuilding and renewing. The road to understanding The Rock seems as daunting for the observer as it was for Blume himself, but the destination is well worth the work. Many studies and cartoons surrounding each of the major works in the exhibition (a practice Blume started when he first exhibited these works) display not just a master draftsman at work, but also a mind and soul.

Offsetting the brainy side of Blume is the visual richness of his works, from the fury of a preliminary sketch to the high finish and bright colors of an oil. Nature predominates the art of Blume’s post-1950s art, the product of his powerful attention to detail focused on the oldest themes of the flowers, rocks, water, and the seasons. Blume’s impish humor slips out when you walk up to the innocently titled New England Barn (1926) and are surprised by the female nude in the window or view Pig’s Feet and Vinegar (1927) and notice the urine-streaked snow at the base of the tree. The personality of the artist in every facet is present powerfully throughout the show.

Near the end of the exhibition you’ll find Blume’s 1961 painting Banyan Tree, a self-portrait showing the artist sketching his surroundings within a dense network of foliage. Much of Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, which runs through April 5, 2015, feels like working through dense underbrush to get to the heart of Blume’s message and art, but you come away not seeing it as a barrier but rather as an invitation into a safe haven, a place where you can rest and recreate yourself. By renewing the memory of Peter Blume’s art, Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis invites us to slow down and imagine our own personal reality of hope.

[Image: Peter Blume. The Rock, 1945‑48. Oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 74 3/8 in. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., 1956.338. Art © The Educational Alliance, Inc./Estate of Peter Blume/Licensed by VAGA, New York.]

[Many thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA, for providing me with the image above from, other press materials related to, a review copy of the catalog (University of Pennsylvania Press) to, and a press pass to see the exhibition Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, which runs through April 5, 2015.]

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