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First Survey of Max Weber in 20 years on view at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa
Three Figures, 1921, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, Private Collection, CA.

TULSA, OK.- Philbrook Museum of Art opened Models & Muses: Max Weber and the Figure to the public Sunday, November 4, 2012. This, the first museum survey on Max Weber’s work in 20 years, amasses 50 works from more than 20 institutions and eight private collections, including the estate of Max Weber. Such a broad collection of works spanning 1907 through 1951 allowed Philbrook Chief Curator Catherine Whitney to present a retrospective analyzing Weber’s paintings through the lens of the figure. Exclusive to Philbrook, this show will run through February 3, 2013.

This Philbrook-originated exhibition traces Max Weber’s trailblazing contributions to American modernism through the medium of figure painting. The exhibition follows a somewhat chronological path of the influences and subjects within Weber’s work. Featuring works that span Weber’s 50-year career, Whitney divided the exhibition into six segments: The Influences of Paris, Dynamic Movement & Performance, Intimate Interiors & Jewish Themes, The Melancholic Muse, Social Commentary & Labor Themes, and Figurative Expressionism.

Recurring themes in this exhibition, including bathers in nature, abstract dancers, women in interiors, laborers, and fleeing refugees illustrate how the figure gave form to Weber’s stylistic experiments, as well as his own humanitarian, religious, and political concerns during the difficult years surrounding the Great Depression and Second World War. Weber’s figures underwent many transformations during his fifty-year career, mirroring and at times anticipating, larger aesthetic movements in modern American culture. This exhibition celebrates how Weber artfully moved abstract painting forward, transforming a traditionally naturalistic genre –the figure- into a vital force for change.

A pioneering force in the advent of modernism in America, Weber introduced the artistic innovations of Parisian vanguards Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse to the U.S. through his highly charged abstractions, landscapes, still lifes, and figure paintings. Weber struggled to establish himself during his early years and often suffered ridicule for his progressive paintings that shocked conservative, turn-of-the-century American audiences and critics. In 1930 the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of his work, the first solo exhibition at that museum of an American artist. By midcentury, Weber had achieved national acclaim including being described by LIFE magazine in 1945 as “the greatest living artist in America,” and by Designmagazine in 1948 as the “Godfather” and “leading old master of modern American Art.”

Born in Bialystok, Russia to an Orthodox Jewish family in 1881, Weber immigrated to New York at the age of 10. Weber attended public school in Brooklyn and earned a teaching degree from Pratt Institute in 1900, studying under Arthur Wesley Dow, who impressed upon Weber a deep respect for the masterworks of the past. Weber studied in Paris 1905 through 1908, during which time he avidly absorbed the structural lessons of Picasso’s cubism, Matisse’s emotive use of color and line, and the popular primitivizing spirit that dominated the Parisian avant-garde during the first two decades of the twentieth century. His friendship with Henri Rousseau was similarly instrumental to his development and is reflected in some of Weber’s earliest American figural compositions set in natural environments.

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