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 Herman Erwin Menzel  (1904 - 1988)

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Lived/Active: Illinois      Known for: urban and rural scene-ordinary life

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography, submitted January 2005, has been provided by Wendy Greenhouse, PhD, co-author of "A Rediscovered Regionalist: Herman Menzel".

Although a relatively isolated figure in the local art world of his day, Chicago native Herman Erwin Menzel created a body of work that allies him with many of the city's progressive artists of the twenties and thirties in its adherence to conventions of representationalism, its emphasis on everyday subject matter, and its subtle air of mystery and mood.

Menzel was born on October 19, 1904, and grew up near Hamilton Park on Chicago's South Side. His father was pastor of a German Lutheran church and insisted that his six children speak only High German in the home. As a child, Herman roamed undeveloped land near his neighborhood; he fished in the lakes he found there and developed a passion for fish and fishing: indeed, during his high school years, he sold fishing tackle at The Fair Store, a downtown Chicago department store. Fish, fishing, and aquariums became a theme in his paintings. Herman's father was a talented musician who wanted him to learn to play classical piano, but the boy cultivated a love for jazz and haunted the black-and-tan cabarets of Chicago's so-called Black Belt. He also sketched people and places in and around his neighborhood.

Following high school graduation, Menzel decided to follow his artistic inclinations. In 1922, at age seventeen, he enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Design; by the following year he had produced his first oil paintings. He soon moved to the newly founded National Academy of Art, a commercial art school, where he met Willa Hamm, his future wife. Both followed instructors Marques Reitzel and Charles De Witz when they left the academy to found the Studio School, in 1924. There, his most important teachers were William Bishop Owen and John Warner Norton, the latter an important mural painter and instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago's school. Menzel was already familiar with Norton's murals at the Hamilton Park field house, in his boyhood neighborhood, and Midway Gardens. His style would be heavily indebted to both painters' broad application of paint and rather blocky treatment of forms.

Owen and Norton together encouraged Menzel to pursue painting rather than commercial work or teaching, but Owen was unsuccessful in persuading Menzel's well-to-do maternal grandmother to finance a study trip abroad for the aspiring young artist. Menzel supported his studies by working the night shift at the post office.

Menzel's teachers took their students on sketching trips throughout the Chicago area. His earliest works reflect subjects at hand, such as Mexican immigrants in southside poolrooms and city dwellers at leisure in Jackson Park. In the summer of 1927, a stay at his brother-in-law's Illinois farm inspired a group of farm scenes. On visits to local museums, Menzel studied the arts of diverse cultures. Having launched her own career as a commercial artist, Willa supported Menzel, in whose talent she had boundless confidence, and he worked in her studio at 229 East Huron Street. His reading of Robert Henri's book "The Art Spirit" confirmed Menzel's commitment to his personal search for individual expression through his art.

When Owen went to teach at the artists' colony of Woodstock, New York, in the summer of 1929, Menzel joined him for the first of three stays that yielded idealized rural views, such as The White Horse (1929; The Art Institute of Chicago). Willa and Herman visited New York City to view public art collections and listen to jazz, but they resisted Owen's suggestion that they relocate there to take advantage of New York's bustling art scene, with its numerous dealers. Menzel may have been encouraged to stay in his hometown by the support of Art Institute director Robert Harshe: in 1927, 1929, and 1930, paintings by Menzel were juried into the Art Institute's prestigious annual exhibitions of American art.

His subjects were consistent with current artistic interest in the everyday life of modern Americans; even before the advent of the Great Depression, like many Chicago painters of the day, he sought out the marginal, the overlooked, and the ignored: Mexican laborers, jobless men hanging out on Chicago's lakefront, denizens of the speakeasy, and the polluted industrial landscape at Calumet Harbor. Menzel's approach was peculiarly his own: his figures, even in crowds, at leisure fishing or at the city beach, seem detached from one another and inaccessible to the viewer, isolated in an almost dreamy silence equivalent to the artist's growing deafness. One telling exception is The Black Grouper (Shedd Aquarium #3) (1946; Dr. and Mrs. Sewall Menzel), an image of a man and a fish communing almost nose-to-nose at the aquarium that testifies to the artist's sense of alternate kinship with the natural world, especially fish.

Willa and Herman married in 1933 and took up residence on the South Side. By this date Menzel was virtually deaf. The Menzels associated with some members of the Fifty-seventh Street Art Colony, a group of artists with Modernist sympathies. Between 1930 and 1939 Menzel exhibited in four annual exhibitions for artists of Chicago and vicinity at the Art Institute; he also participated once in the annual show of the No-Jury Society of Artists and in a few exhibitions in other cities. During the depression, Menzel was also briefly involved with the federally sponsored artists' relief program of the Works' Progress Administration. Although Willa's job disqualified Menzel from employment with the program, an administrator encouraged him to participate. Menzel contributed one painting to the easel division, and he submitted a proposal for the competition for the decoration of the East Moline, Illinois, post office, a design that reflected his own experience as a letter-sorter.

Isolated by deafness and temperament, Menzel remained largely aloof from Chicago's artistic community, however. He associated little with other artists, refused to cultivate collectors and critics, and was ignored in turn by them. The artist's growing deafness was one source of his reclusive nature, which may have had its origin in his sense of isolation as a German-American with childhood experience of anti-German sentiment during World War One. Additionally, Menzel felt separated from fellow artists by his training at commercial art schools rather than the fine arts program of the Art Institute's school.

Menzel's interest in everyday life around him had produced paintings whose subjects and treatment were in sympathy with the populist culture of the 1930s. But nature was his real passion, one kindled by childhood experience and his visits to the Catskills. In addition to numerous visits to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and to the Rockies, in the 1930s he made repeated trips to his father-in-law's cabin at Three Lakes in northern Wisconsin, where he and Willa had honeymooned in 1933. Later, they camped together on an island they purchased in Rainy Lake, on the border between Minnesota and Ontario; by 1960 the artist had designed and built his own cabin there. Menzel loved roughing it in the outdoors and sketching the wood, waters, and wildlife. His stays there satisfied his reclusive nature and allowed him to rest his eyesight, always strained from his early work at the post office.

In 1943 the Menzels, with their one-year-old son Sewall, moved to Hubbard Woods, a section of the North Shore suburb of Winnetka, to take up residence in the Civil War-era house in which Willa had grown up. A separate studio was erected on the property for Herman, who worked there in increasing isolation until illness force him to cease painting in his seventies. Among his last works were several broadly rendered but carefully modeled still-lifes in which humble products of his own garden partake of a hushed animate intensity. Willa loyally supported her husband throughout his career, attempted to preserve his work after his death, and lobbied for the wider public recognition to which he had been largely indifferent. As a result of her efforts, in 1994 the Chicago Historical Society presented an exhibition documenting Menzel's talents in a selection of almost fifty oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings.

Wendy Greenhouse, 2005


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