|Ture Bengtz (1907 – 1973) was an anomaly in the Boston art world of the 1930s and 1940s. While his expressionist peers focused their works on political unrest, social injustice, and religious conflicts, Bengtz had a more optimistic view of humanity. The Finnish emigrant was no less a social realist, but he chose to depict life’s simple pleasures and stolen moments of contentment rather than scenes of anguish and pain. |
“He loved being an American citizen and was so grateful for the opportunities he had here,” says his daughter Lanci Bengtz Valentine, by way of explanation. “He would sit at the kitchen table after a meal, and while sketching on a napkin, say absentmindedly, ‘Gee, it’s nice to be able to draw.’” That was an understatement. During World War II, the Raytheon Corporation hired Bengtz as a technical illustrator of radar equipment. His drawings were so exacting that they looked like photographs.
In addition to being an enormously skilled draftsman, lithographer, and painter, Bengtz was as gifted a teacher as a practitioner. Fortunately for Boston’s budding art community, he willingly sacrificed personal studio time to dedicate his life to educating future generations, and he did so at the most influential art institution in New England.
If you wanted to become a modern artist in the 1930s and ‘40s in Boston, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts was the place to be. After the arrival of Karl Zerbe - German refugee and Nazi-branded “degenerate” artist - as head of the school’s painting department in 1937, both the style and subject matter of contemporary art in the city changed drastically.
This was no longer the genteel world of privilege prettily depicted by John Singer Sargent and Edward Tarbell, but a frightening time of impending war, upheaval, and anxiety. While Zerbe opened students’ eyes to the unsettling works of Max Beckmann and the German avant-garde, Bengtz taught perspective, anatomy, and volumetric representation as head of the Drawing and Graphic Arts Department.
He would go “from easel to easel in the life classes, showing in a few swift strokes the essence of a model’s gesture, and demonstrating how a three-dimensional form can be reduced to a two-dimensional surface yet can convince the viewer of its solidity as an object in space,” recalled Bengtz’s former Museum School student and teaching assistant Richard C. Bartlett.
As the Museum School was dominated by figurative, rather than abstract, expressionists, drawing skills were especially crucial. Bengtz’s lessons proved invaluable by continually stressing “the interrelationship of drawing and painting and the importance of a strong technical foundation combined with individual expressiveness,” asserts Judith Bookbinder, art scholar and author of Boston Modern (2005).
And when it came to his own works, Bengtz was often more experimental and less wedded to a single figurative style than fellow Boston Expressionists Jack Levine, Hyman Bloom, and David Aronson - even venturing into pure abstraction, a style antithetical to that group.
“One can see by the prints of Ture Bengtz what a restless spirit possessed him,” wrote his friend and fellow artist Will Barnet. “Each new litho was like a different part of himself, demanding a new experience. Sometimes it would be technical, sometimes spiritual, sometimes structural, sometimes an atmospheric mood, sometimes social, sometimes retrospect, sometimes just a plain everyday human event; nothing escaped this restless man. Since he did not have a consistent style, he could be versatile and adventurous with all the human emotions.”
One of Bengtz’s true gifts was his mastery of lithography. For him, “life on the stone was one big adventure, somewhat like a child playing with castles in the sand,” wrote Barnet. “Geometric line and planes burst in across the stone, mixed with the literary and narrative tall tales. Yet through all the turmoil emerge pieces of strong craftsmanship, with passion capturing the dynamics of the moment.”
In the Childs show, Cocoon II is a case in point, depicting a vagrant napping peacefully on a bed of newspapers in the Boston Common. Is the man dreaming of getting a job? By exaggerating the size of his subject’s hands, Bengtz shows him capable of work; and even as he sleeps, those hands serve him well, one as a pillow, the other clutching part of the paper - the “Want Ads,” perhaps? Though society often looks down on the homeless, Bengtz takes a kindlier more hopeful view.
But to fellow artists like Richard C. Bartlett, it is the virtuosity of the print that transfixes, as he explained in The Lithographs of Ture Bengtz (1978): “This runs the gamut, with tusche washes, transferred oak leaves, chamois cloth rubbing, sleight-of-hand crayon work, acid-burning techniques – the whole vocabulary in the process. The amazing thing is that those devices are so appropriately used that it takes a fellow lithographer really to notice them.”
Couple (Parents), another work at Childs, also combines a compassionate view with extraordinary technical execution. As in Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic (1930), the subject is an elderly working-class couple with careworn faces. But unlike the cold, stoic pair in Wood’s famous painting, Bengtz’s subjects are quite close, heads tilted toward one another and with uplifted faces, suggesting a strong bond and contentment.
“I know of no one else who drew this way,” writes Richard C. Bartlett. “The geometric treatment of the hair, kerchief, and jackets should not really work in combination with the more naturalistic faces, but Bengtz could pull off the contradiction of styles, although few others can. Perhaps it is the consummate control and self-confidence that rule out any challenges of his approach. Always one to find the most direct way to achieve an effect, Ture wrapped a soft rag over his index finger, rubbed this on a soft litho crayon, then rubbed it on the stone where he wanted smooth-toned transitions of values. The passages done this way rival air-brush effects.”
“As a printmaker, Bengtz had a knowledge of color lithography unrivaled in his generation,” adds Sinclair Hitchings, former Keeper of the Prints at the Boston Public Library (home to the Ture Bengtz print raissoné collection). The artist was so obsessed with the possibilities of the process that he installed a lithographic press in his house in Melrose, as well as in his summer home in Duxbury. To share his skills and knowledge, Bengtz co-founded The Boston Printmakers association in 1947, continuing his involvement with the highly regarded art group until his death in 1973. He also had his own show, Bengtz On Drawing, on WGBH public television in the late ‘50s.
“Often teaching saps the energies of a person who might otherwise be a notable artist, writer, or musician,” explains Hitchings. “It was not that way with Ture Bengtz. He had the capacity to do many different things and do them well.”
Though universally respected for his bravura lithographs, Bengtz was also a superb painter. Veering between the social realism of the Ashcan school and the more primal figuratism of the Boston Expressionists, the artist liked to focus on people at play or leisure, capturing the spontaneity of the moment with his exuberant brushstrokes and boldly vivid hues. Though very different in emotional intensity, Beach Scene – Swimming (c.1940) and Men in Boat (c. 1958) both convey the mesmerizing translucency of the ocean, so refreshing and inviting in the former, and more mysterious and somnolent in the latter. As a lifelong lover of fishing and the beach, Bengtz was a master at mirroring the various hypnotic effects of water.
Even in his later abstractions, Bengtz could communicate the co-existence of energy, movement, and calm in the ocean. “He was past recording patiently the exact appearance of things,” explained Richard C. Bartlett. “He had already done that. He was now in a liberated state that allowed him to go for the essence of the subject, and the emotional responses.”
Many of those works are part of Childs’ Ture Bengtz forty-year retrospective, a gallery-wide show featuring the artist’s paintings on one floor, and his lithographs in our print room. It is the first one-person show of the artist since the 1998 exhibit Beyond the Shore held at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, which Bengtz helped design. One of the museum’s galleries was later named for the artist and his wife of 36 years, Lillian.
Though Bengtz exhibited at many Boston and New York galleries throughout his lifetime and is represented in the collections of numerous national institutions (such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Fogg Museum, Cambridge; Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; and the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio) many of the exceptional works in the Childs show have never been seen by the public before.
“As Bengtz was better known for his graphic arts than his paintings, we are so pleased to be showing these wonderful, rarely seen works,” says Richard Baiano, President of Childs Gallery. One of Bengtz’s iconic paintings is currently being considered for a United States postage stamp, with another work already on a stamp in his home country of Finland.
“Ture Bengtz was a restless experimenter,” noted Bartlett. “This was true of his work in other media too, but it shows most dramatically in his lithographs. He didn’t want to be cast in one mold, and then repeat himself endlessly. He wanted the fun of trying new things.”
The opening of the exhibit Ture Bengtz: Life Lessons is on April 5th from 6:00 – 8:00 PM. The artist’s daughter Lanci Bengtz Valentine will be present.