The American modernist painter Peter Blume (1906-92) often depicted scenes of excavation. Whether he was showing coal miners in Pennsylvania or archaeologists in Italy, something valuable and long hidden is being unearthed.
You could say that "Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis," the ambitious retrospective organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is itself an act of excavation, in this case of the artist himself. Blume was, in the 1920s and especially the 1930s, considered one of America's most promising modernists. He won important prizes. He had influential patrons, chief among them Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and his works are in the collections of the country's most prestigious museums.
Now, though, they mostly reside in storage. The story of American modernism has been written, and Blume is not part of it. This is the first retrospective in 48 years. By unearthing this work, and producing an ambitious and sumptuous catalog, Robert Cozzolino, senior curator at PAFA, offers a chance to see Blume's work and ask whether the story needs to be changed.
At first glance you might peg Blume as a surrealist because he combines purposely dissonant subject matter with a technique that evokes Renaissance Flemish masters. But unlike the surrealists, who painted personal dreamscapes, Blume's works most often grew from personal observations, which merge many places and times in a single work. It is really closer to literary magic realism: There is unquestionably a psychological dimension to his work, but also a historical and social consciousness largely missing in surrealism.
In Parade (1929-30) one of the works that made him famous, he paints an industrial scene, full of bright colors, dynamic diagonals, and great ducts, fins and funnels, that seems to sum up the romance of the machine. But in front he places a man holding a pole. He appears to be a protester, but instead of a placard his pole holds a suit of armor. The romance of the machine was very real at the time, but the painting suggests that the past is inexorably part of the present, and ignored at our peril.
South of Scranton (1930-31) is even odder. It was based, he said, on a car trip he made through Eastern states. A mining scene, which may explain the title, floats on the left side of the canvas, but the picture is dominated by a tower, with platforms and a stair to nowhere - a prefiguration of the Fontainebleau Hotel built in Miami Beach a decade and a half later. Around it are nearly identical fit young men in underpants, leaping impossibly high. These are, Blume explained, German sailors he observed exercising in Charleston, S.C.
South of Scranton won first prize at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, a prestigious honor that provoked popular scorn and befuddlement. Today, it seems evident that the skeptical public saw the picture more clearly than the experts. It is a lively, ambitious work. Still, the human figure was never Blume's strength, and these Teutonic mariners are bouncing around like so many Super Marios. Hard as I try to take it seriously, it just looks silly.
Blume, always a slow worker, followed this critical triumph with a commission that just about did him in, personally, though it produced what was probably his most important work. Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann had just completed a weekend house. We know it as Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, perhaps the most celebrated American building of the 20th century. Blume was asked to do a painting for the most prominent wall in the living room.
He quickly produced a small, charming picture of the house, with members of the family all about - standing on the terraces, fishing in the stream. But when asked to enlarge it for its intended location, Blume decided a more substantial work was needed, and he spent most of the next decade working on what became The Rock (1945-48). Fallingwater, under construction, is visible on the left side of the painting. But The Rock is not about a retailer's rural retreat but about World War II, and the massive effort by the entire society that was required for victory.
When this painting was shown at the Carnegie International in 1950, the previous reaction was reversed. It was the favorite of viewers, but for the experts its moment had passed. The art they celebrated in the immediate postwar years and promoted as the expression of the American century was the opposite of Blume's. While his is overloaded with meaning and imagery, abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning did paintings that were virtually content-free, and were seen as the embodiment of energy and freedom.
And while the public still identified with the solidarity expressed in The Rock, it was also a moment of paranoia about communist influence. It probably didn't help that Blume was a man of the left, and a native of what was then the Soviet Union (now Belarus).
Blume reflects on his reputation in Tasso's Oak (1957-60) a very large, very good painting. We see a real if bedraggled Roman landmark, the remains of the tree said to have been planted by the 16th-century epic poet Torquato Tasso. It was here, the story goes, that he waited for the pope to crown him poet laureate, the first since ancient times. Both he and the pope died before the honor could be conferred.
In Blume's painting we see the dead oak, buttressed with steel and brick. Around it are a boy drawing in chalk on the pavement, and women knitting, the quintessential activity of productive waiting. Blume too is sticking to his knitting, refining, not changing, his style, getting better even as he is ignored. Spiraling from the bottom of the dead tree is a new branch, full of leaves and life.
Blume was never destined to be the great American modernist he seemed momentarily to be. But that is not reason to consign him to oblivion. When we look at the art of the 20th century, Blume, like the small figures he painted so obsessively in his large canvases, deserves to be in the picture.
Through April 5 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, 128 N. Broad St. Closed Mondays.
Adults $15; 60-plus and students $12; teens $8; 12 and under and military personnel free.
Information: 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.