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The Homer and Dolly Hand Art Center at Stetson University will soon be hosting “Oscar Bluemner: My Finest Design.” The exhibition’s title is derived from a message scrawled by Bluemner on one of more than 1,000 pieces of artwork that his daughter, Vera Bluemner Kouba, bequeathed to Stetson University 24 years ago.

The message is written on an architectural drawing Bluemner completed while working and living in Chicago between 1895 and 1900. “My Finest Design” presents work from Bluemner’s early schooling and career as an architect, and the influence of architecture that remained with Bluemner long after he left the field to pursue painting as a career.

Jersey Silk Mills, Oscar Bluemner, 1916

Bluemner was born Frederick Julius Oskar Bluemner on June 21, 1867, in Prenzlau, a small town in the Brandenburg region of central Prussia. In 1871, Bluemner’s family moved to Hildesheim, where he received his first formal art instruction.

Bluemner’s great-grandfather was a master craftsman, his grandfather an architect, and his father a builder. It was no surprise when Bluemner chose to pursue architecture in school and then as a profession.

Untitled (sketch for canal side), Oscar Bluemner, 1916

Bluemner arrived in the United States through the Port of New York on Oct. 15, 1892. He listed his occupation as “architect” and his intent as “settler.” By January, he had settled in Chicago, where he worked as an architect’s assistant and designer of prefabricated units on the Columbian Exposition grounds. He returned to New York in 1893 and eventually found work at an architectural firm, before contracting malaria, forcing him to abandon the position.

After recovering from the illness, Bluemner contemplated leaving the United States for Paris and a fresh start. However, he returned to Chicago in 1895, most likely to rekindle a friendship with Lina Schumm, whom he would marry two years later.

From 1895 to 1901, Bluemner married, bore a son named Robert, and worked intensively on architectural projects. He secured and maintained his professional license, exhibited regularly with the Chicago Architecture Club, designed several area homes, and competed for major public building projects. It was during this period that he created his “finest design.”

Even while designing buildings and homes, Bluemner’s passion for painting often surfaced. Bluemner confided in his friend Arthur Heurtley and was advised by Heurtley: “I am immensely interested in what you tell me of your life, its aims, its ideals, and your efforts to attain them. At present you are in a state of evolution and your soul is seeking to express its idea of beauty in other forms than those to which an architect is limited. It is well that you recognize this and can follow the bent of your genius.”

Though Bluemner was productive and active, his career was not flourishing, and he and his wife decided to relocate to New York City. Back in New York, Bluemner gained employment in an architectural firm. His most notable work was of the Bronx Borough Courthouse in 1903. Bluemner filed a lawsuit after another architect took sole credit for the design.

In 1912, the Supreme Court decided the case in Bluemner’s favor, but by then, he had abandoned architecture as a profession and was pursuing painting.

Of his architectural pursuits, Bluemner reminisced in a later essay, “The price I paid for success as an architect was a complete disillusionment. … To make a very long story short, I will here only say that I look back without regret or blushing to the time when I carried all my belongings in an empty vest pocket, my letters of introduction into an ash can, my ideals to a Hester Street pawnbroker and started at the bottom of the great American melting pot of men and things, viz: The struggle for getting up.”

Though Bluemner discarded the tools of the trade of architecture, his training and deep respect for architecture carried on into his new profession.

As Stetson University’s Roberta Smith Favis put it, “Bluemner left off designing buildings to be constructed in the real world, but man-made structures remained a dominant theme in the striking modernist paintings that occupied him for his last decades.”

Alongside the plans Bluemner labeled as “my finest design,” the Hand Art Center exhibits an architectural drawing completed by Bluemner’s grandfather in the 1860s. Bluemner carried this drawing throughout his life, even while penniless, frequenting bread lines and sleeping in barns.

After his death, this drawing was passed to his daughter, Vera, who donated it to Stetson University along with the entire Bluemner collection now housed at the Hand Art Center. Also included in this gift were the remnants of Oscar Bluemner’s personal art collection consisting mostly of Japanese woodblock prints and a small series of etchings.

Not surprisingly, these etchings depict the facades of buildings throughout Europe, and their line work is very reminiscent of architectural drawings.

The exhibition’s final element features examples of Bluemner’s paintings and drawings completed at the height of his artistic career. In these artworks, there is an apparent influence of architecture both in the composition of the work and the finished product.

According to Favis, “For the last quarter-century of his life, Bluemner devoted himself to painting, utilizing architectural elements as vital components of a new pictorial language … [and] as a painter, Bluemner demonstrated his background in architecture again and again. Accustomed to developing architectural projects through multiple plans and studies, he followed the same technique in evolving each major painting, creating numerous preliminary versions in both black and white and color. Many of his works still show evidence of the grids he utilized to transfer an image from one scale or medium to another.”

“Oscar Bluemner: My Finest Design” will be on display at the Homer and Dolly Hand Art Center at Stetson University Thursday, Aug. 19, through Friday, Dec. 3.

All visitors to Stetson University will be required to visit the Rinker Wellness Center prior to moving around campus, and will be required to abide by Stetson University COVID protocols.

A virtual version of the exhibition can be viewed at the Hand Art Center website at www.HandArtCenter.org/my-finest-design.

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