Robert Von Neumann


by Gary John Gresl

Robert Von Neumann, Boat Scene, Museum of Wisconsin Art Collection
Midwestern Virtues: a Robert Von Neumann Retrospective at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend

Why does it take so long sometimes for something obvious to finally gain foothold in one’s consciousness? Why does something so clear remain outside of recognition, outside of congealing as a reality in the mind?

During the January weekend celebration about the announcement of the plans for the Museum of Wisconsin Art, the associated exhibit of Robert Von Neumann’s work served to crystallize my ideas and opinion about him. Two opinions became firmly established in my little mind.

In my personal experience dealing with the subject of “American Regionalism”, or “American Scene Painting”,* there are certain artists always obviously categorized as part of the movement. The nationally recognized John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, are nearly always at the forefront. In Wisconsin other names have been clear, such as Gerritt Sinclair and Robert Von Neumann.

However, in my limited experience in the collecting marketplace, Von Neumann has been spoken of first in terms of being a German immigrant and also as an excellent teacher. Those appellations have generally come first in discussions preceding where he is to be placed in terms of art historical classifications. There is something about his having moved here from Germany with his German academic training and attitude which included realism as a main tenet. For example, is there any hesitation to say he is a true “American Scene” painter if he brought a German aesthetic to America? Should the fact he is an immigrant bar him from being a true Regionalist in America?

Well, that question was resoundingly answered for me thru the bountiful MWA display of dozens of his oil paintings and prints. His choice of subject, the themes of hard working common men and rural scenes make it perfectly clear that this genre, American Scene Painting, is where he easily fits. If one needs to pigeon hole an artist, then this genre works for him.

The other question that I had raised over the years was about the quality of his work, especially when compared to a John Steuart Curry, a Gerritt Sinclair, and the other better known regionalists. Well, that question was very positively answered for me as well.

His many wonderful images of rural scenes and everyday working class life are boldly painted, expertly and naturally organized and colored, and entirely engaging to that viewer who attempts to understand another time, another physical place and a philosophy different from most subsequent art movements and trends.

Robert’s work in paint has a boldness and sure coarseness that some other German academics might not have found appealing. Unlike the fine controlled sometimes invisible brush work of Carl Von Marr, Von Neumann’s brush is fearless and joyfully prominent. And his choice of subject in the working class engaged in daily labors, repeated over and over, would not have been so often stated in the academies, nor seen in prominent modern German art movements of the 20th C.

Dozens of prints are included in this exhibit, and when it comes to print making Von Neumann understood and used several methods to produce a prodigious amount of visual tales about the hard working men and women of America. In them, I am willing to bet, he saw the working class of Germany AND of the world at large. The exhibit at West Bend gave ample opportunity for the viewer to be impressed by his print making mastery.

Robert Von Neumann celebrated his belief and understanding of real every day hard working people. In that he suggested he was of the same class and working ethic, sympathetic with hard working common folk and willing to be associated with them. And it must be admitted, his images do lift the people to noble and heroic status.

The curator for this exhibit was Janet Treacy, former curator of the Cudahy Gallery at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and long time enthusiast supporting Wisconsin artists. Her choices of his work, and her compositions about him in the accompanying gallery guide, provide all that is needed to come away with important knowledge of the artist. There are over 50 works from this prolific artist, the earliest a sketch book likely made before he departed German to reside in America, and the latest made months prior to his death in 1976. Robert was born in Germany in 1888, and came to Milwaukee in 1926 where he immediately gained employment with the Milwaukee Journal and Perry-Gugler Engraving Corp. He taught at Layton School of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, Ox-Bow Summer School of Painting, and UW Milwaukee.

The reception for the Von Neumann exhibit, held on January 14th, included a panel discussion offered by students and acquaintances of the artist. One of these friends, Robert Fiedler, a long established artist who had been the student of Von Neumann at UW Milwaukee in the 40’s, had this to say. I paraphrase: “He was one who believed that the best art was a direct product of the hands, that included the human figure, and which imparted a message.”

So, my two questions concerning his historical stature and position were answered and in fact punctuated with an exclamation point. For his time, his culture, and his genre, he was an artist of great merit, and one who has not yet had his star illuminated to the magnitude it deserves on the national scene. As an American Scene artist, his work rivals a John Steuart Curry, or perhaps even exceeds him without the need to make enormous paintings that impress by sheer size of canvas.

* Definition: American Scene Painting is a general term encompassing the mainstream realist and antimodernist style of painting popular in the United States during the Great Depression. A reaction against the European Modernism, it was seen as an attempt to define a uniquely American style of art.

There were two schools, Rural Scene painting and Social Realism, or Country vs. Urban.

Robert Von Neumann, Boat Scene, Museum of Wisconsin Art Collection Robert Von Neumann, The Black Captain, Goeth House Collection of Wisconsin
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