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 Olinka Hrdy  (1902 - 1987)

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Lived/Active: Oklahoma/California      Known for: geometric abstract painting, murals, decorative art

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Ad Code: 4
Olinka (Miss) Hrdy
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"Lost Olinka"
• By Holly Wall •

One of Oklahoma’s great mysteries, either unknown to or ignored by most of its populace, is what became of a collection of nine murals created for Patti Adams Shriner’s Riverside Music Studio in Tulsa.

The designer of those murals, Olinka Hrdy, is another mystery altogether.

Famed architect Bruce Goff designed the Riverside Studio, which was built in 1929 atop a hill on Riverside Drive near Houston Avenue, facing the Arkansas River. The two-story white stucco structure, which houses the Tulsa Spotlight Theatre—presenter of the 58-year-old melodramas The Drunkard and The Olio, as well as various children’s plays—is one of the city’s favorite architectural gems, the one we point to as a prime example of the Art Deco we pride ourselves on.

The thing we fail to mention is that it once boasted the country’s first example of modern abstract decoration.

Goff designed the studio for Shriner, his music teacher, and commissioned Prague, Oklahoma artist Olinka Hrdy, a student at the University of Oklahoma, to create its décor, a set of murals inspired by musical evolution.

Geometric in pattern and composed of bright, bold colors, the murals signified various forms of music: primitive, vocal, piano, symphonic, choral, string, and modern. Five feet wide and 13 feet long, the paintings decorated the studio’s recital hall, situated above the air vents and running the length of the wall until they met the ceiling, where they made a sharp 90-degree turn and continued on for another foot.

The murals were Hrdy’s first foray into abstraction, and they launched her artistic career. Frank Lloyd Wright noted “something good” in them when he invited her to Taliesin East, the summer home he used to educate architecture students.

What became of the murals is a question that has yet to be answered. No one saw them removed from the building, which ceased to be Shriner’s studio in 1933, and they left no paper trail behind. According to the Spotlight Theatre, former New York City actor Richard Mansfield Dickinson purchased the Riverside Studio in 1941 and used it as a residence and speech and drama studio until 1953, when he invited the Tulsa Spotlight Club to give its first performance of The Drunkard.

Olinka Hrdy enjoyed a few years of acclaim before fading into the background. She worked as an industrial designer after World War II, diagramming blueprints for radios and radio cabinets, waste baskets, clothes hampers, and even the interior of a private airplane, but she received little historical recognition for her work.

Oklahoma’s first modernist painter, Hrdy was an artist ahead of her time, among the first to exhibit European Bauhaus influences—something that most American artists wouldn’t pick up on for another few years.

She could be the state’s claim to fame—if anyone knew who she was.

Hrdy may have been more at home in Bohemian Prague. In Seminole County Prague, a small Czech community lost below and between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where they say it “PRAY-gue,” not “PRAH-gue”—she was all but lost.

Signs along Highway 99 don’t point to Prague; rather, they direct drivers to the National Shrine of the Infant Jesus, a statue that sits outside the Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church, whose history is said to date back 400 years. A tiny “Welcome to Prague” sign greets drivers in either direction.

Downtown is about a mile and a half past the sign, where most of the city’s history is situated on streets called “Klabzuba,” and “Barta,” and “Mitacek.” Just a couple miles south of downtown is the Czech National Cemetery, where Hrdy, her parents and her brothers are buried.

Czechoslovakian immigrants settled Prague during the Land Run of 1891, when the Sac and Fox reservation was opened for settlement. The town’s pioneers named it “Praha,” after the capital city of their homeland, but intentionally mispronounced its English name, Prague, replacing the short “a” sound with a long one, because they thought it sounded more American.

Olinka (Czech for “Olive”) Hrdy was born there in a one-room sod hut in 1902, the same year Prague was incorporated, on August 7 to Josef and Emma Hrdy. She had one older brother, Carl, and a younger one named George. Her second cousin, Edward Benes, was the second president of Czechoslovakia.

The Hrdy parents divorced when Olinka was 16, and research indicates that the artist fell out of touch with her father around the time she left Prague to attend college. Available correspondence suggests Hrdy wasn’t close to her family. Little is known about her father or her ex-husband, Ray Claire Tracy, to whom she was only married a couple of years.

In Prague’s Czech National Cemetery, Emma, Carl, and Olinka are each buried beneath large slabs of marble that lie side by side behind the family headstone. A few feet away, George and his wife, Edna Mae Lester Hrdy, share a small plat of land. Somewhere in between, the Hrdy patriarch rests alone.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is a review of a June, 2007 exhibition at Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

NORMAN — A magnificent exhibit of the art and design of Olinka Hrdy (1902-87) at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave., is apt to come as a revelation to many visitors as a largely forgotten Oklahoma treasure during the Oklahoma Centennial.

Called "Oklahoma Moderne: The Art and Design of Olinka Hrdy,” the show was curated by Oklahoma State University art history associate professor Mark Andrew White, who also wrote the catalog essay.

The exhibit contains more than 70 paintings, drawings, prints, illustrations and other works by the Czech-American artist who returned from California to her birthplace in Prague, OK, in 1965, and gave much of her work to the OU museum the following year.

Among early works are a group of watercolor studies for a colorful abstract mural cycle at Riverside Studio in Tulsa, done at the request of the building's architect, Bruce Goff, and a series of lithograph and colored pencil drawings of Turner Falls.

A pair of streamlined, stylized women with flowing hair gesture using one raised arm in Hrdy's Choral Music mural study and a keyboard rises at an angle, like part of a skyscraper, in her study for the Riverside Piano Music mural.

Elegant, branch-like lines outline a giant boulder shape at the base of a waterfall, suggested by rhythmic, blue curves, in Hrdy's Turner Falls No. 3, one of her best depictions of the falls (which she hadn't seen, according to a gallery note).

Equally striking is a series of seven tempera-colored pencil portraits, done in the "Dynamic Symmetry” style, which reduces features to straight lines and faceted angles, while she was a student at the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York.

Red and black typed letters help to rouge one cheek and provide a shadow for the forehead of Tulsa actress Mildred Maxey, and white lines on black paper give a glass-like, see-though quality to Hrdy's portrait of Phil McMann in Hollywood.

Possibly the show's strongest work is Design (Exposition Park) or Mysterious Shadow of Five Forms, a 1934 oil, more than 96-by-60-inches, which could suggest overlapping buildings, embellished with dark gold circles, like sunspots, or a giant microphone.

Rivaling it are a number of smaller oil canvases depicting such things as a "Weaving” machine or loom in a geometric study, done in 1936, and an abstract aerial view of Lake Shore Drive, based on Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1934.

Multicolor circles, floating in front of pale blue-green or orange backgrounds, become Moving Sound or Sound Vibrations from Mars in two more oils, while delicately sketched rectangles, squares and bands of color become a metaphor for Light in a third.

Hrdy plays Games with us in a 1936 oil of beads strung on a wire, interacting with transparent planes, and offers her own light-hearted, lyrical, G-rated interpretation of Sex and Conception in two 24-by-24-inch 1954 oils.

Another intriguing element in the show is a delicately sketched, mostly untitled 1936-37 series of lithographs, color pencil drawings and watercolors of flowers.

Also on view is a wonderful selection of designs for everything from clothes hampers, jazzy radios and flatware to floral patterns for wallpaper, table mats, runners and coasters.

Scheduled to run through Sept. 9 at OU's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, and from Sept. 28 through Jan. 13 at the Price Tower Art Center in Bartlesville, the exhibit is a must-see for fans of modern art in Oklahoma.

— John Brandenburg

Online Source:

Biography from Crocker Art Museum Store:
Painter, muralist, sculptor, lithographer, designer, Olinka Hrdy was born in a sod house in the small Czechoslovakian settlement of Prague, near Oklahoma City, OK on Aug. 7, 1902. Hrdy studied at the University of Oklahoma, with Frank Lloyd Wright, and at Roerich Academy of Art in NYC. She was active in Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles about 1933.

As an employee of the Federal Art Project, she painted murals and sculpted. By 1980 she had returned to her native city and died there on Sept. 7, 1987.

University of Oklahoma, 1929 (gold medal); Bullocks Wilshire (LA), 1936; Gumps (SF), 1937; Stendahl Gallery (LA), 1938.

Central High School (LA); Pasadena Jr. College; Santa Monica High School; Lowell High School (Long Beach); Univ. of Oklahoma; Will Rogers Jr High School (Long Beach).

Who's Who in American Art, 1940, 1980.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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