Chicago Modernist Frederick Remahl created an eccentric and compelling body of paintings from the mid 1920s until his death. The poetry of longing implied by Remahl's dolls- the artist's name for his bizarre little figures- speaks of connection, between man and woman, between the Old World and the New World, and between the artist and the sea. Sullivan Goss is pleased to present the Estate of the Artist.
Remahl, a Swedish born (1901) artist often associated with the City of Chicago, the Chicago Society of Artists and his work with the WPA, continued to make art from the early 1920’s until his death in 1968 in Clairborne, Maryland. He is listed in the standard historical references of Who Was Who in American Art, the Annals of the Chicago Art Institute, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and many others. He participated in exhibitions for thirty years, the last in 1953. His work is held in a half dozen museums. He produced a body of work united by the signature elements of his unique style. He persisted with a vision that was stark, primitive, simple and isolated from the main stream of art. Though he often dealt with the icons of the dark side of dreams, skeptical mysticism and death, his work is infused with precision, power and vitality.
Frederick Anderson, later known as Frederick Remahl, was born on the small island Snesholmen off Bohuslan, Sweden on June 18, 1901. He was the first-born and after Swedish custom was named after his father, Anders Frederickson, hence the artist birth name Frederick Anderson. The artist’s father was born in Branneby, a province of Bohusland, Sweden in 1876. The artist’s mother, Anna Oktavia Olsen, was born in Onsoy, Norway in 1879. Remahl had two brothers, Ole and Jacob and three sisters Nina, Martha and Anna. For a 1932 review he reminisced about his family’s island home, “I spent and extremely happy childhood there among the seaweeds, sea shells, and driftwood—endlessly sailing and rowing small boats. The late autumnal storms, in particular, were impressive and I still remember them with awe and wonder. Remahl had an early interest in painting, which was said to be inherited from his mother. However, he did not seriously pursue artistic endeavors until he immigrated to the States in 1914. The Frederickson family settled in a Swedish community on the shore of Lake Superior near Two Harbors, Minnesota. Remahl enjoyed life on the Lake Superior so much like island life of his youth. Eventually, his love of the water led him to pursue his seaman papers enabling him to work on commercial vessels in the Great Lakes. Working his way through school as an able-bodied seaman he went on to formally study art at the Minneapolis School of Fine Art from 1920-1922, primarily under the direction of Anthony Angarola (1893-1929) who “was a first generation Italian Immigrant and much of his work focused on his compassion for persons struggling to adopt a foreign culture.” In order to clear up some confusion the artist, while at the Institute, choose to change his last name to Remahl, a name which came from his mother’s side of the family. In 1923 Remahl and his artist friend Sigfus Sigfusson would travel to Paris to study art. Following their return to the United States the artists moved to Chicago for greater opportunities.
For the next 43 years Remahl would make Chicago his primary home. With a few sojourns to Minneapolis, he went on to marry, paint, exhibit, participate in artists’ societies, teach and raise his family in the Windy City. A year after their marriage Maria gave birth to their first child, daughter Peggy. The following year the family opted for a slower life and moved back to the Minneapolis countryside where Remahl both worked as an artist and taught private art classes. It turned out that life was not any easier in Minneapolis. Their son Daniel was born in 1931. Daughter Peggy recalls being told that “times were so difficult that in order to bring home a few dollars her mother would make fudge which her father and his brother would sell on the street.” Finances continued to become more difficult for the young family. The affects of the Great Depression forced them to move back to Chicago where Remahl continued to work as an artist but he supplemented his endeavors with work as a house painter wherever he could.
Remahl’s big break came in 1937 when he was offered his first WPA project. Reflecting on this period the artist’s son Daniel remembered, “the utter happiness in the house when word came of Dad being accepted to work in the Federal Art Project. I had no idea that there was a Depression and thought that everyone lived in cold-water flats. The Federal Program was a major player in our lives.” It was during this period that he would complete his most famous projects including a cycle of twelve murals for the Chicago Board of Trade, a series for Cook County Hospital, as well as various paintings and a mural for the Chicago Public Schools. While completing his WPA assignments he continued to paint. Remahl had to tame his primitive style into more representational scene paintings that would be acceptable to the public and Increase Robinson, the director of the regional WPA efforts.
In 1947, after World War II, the artist and his wife started “Remahl’s Little Gallery and Frame Shop” at 3962 Clark Street in Chicago. Always good with his hands, the artist found himself designing and making frames for their Gallery and Frame shop. This retail space also gave him room to regularly exhibit his own paintings and those of his modernist contemporaries. But the constant pressures of life reflect in an increasingly less vital artistic output. Perhaps the artist also sensed that his paintings from Depression were his finest. Whenever he could find time, on weekends and vacations, he would return to his artistic efforts. But his later work seems rushed and unfinished. The careful planning and precise execution of his earlier days is gone. Eventually the Remahls were able to retire in 1965. They move to Claiborne, Maryland, not far from Chesapeake Bay, to be near their daughter Peggy. As if returning to his youth, Remahl purchased a small boat and sailed the South River and on to the great Bay. On January 12, 1968 the artist died as a result of pancreatic cancer at the age of sixty-seven.
II. SGTV Video
"Frederick Remahl: When Smoke Goes Down"
Written and Narrated by Frank Goss
Produced by Nathan Vonk
In the spring of 2010, Sullivan Goss had its third exhibit of works from the estate of the artist.
To watch this video click on the image to the left.
III. An Analysis of the Artist's Work
“Color is of the greatest importance to me. It makes painting a constant pleasure. Indeed, I do pure abstraction largely because that affords me a great opportunity to play with color.”
-Frederick Remahl, 1932
Color was everything for Remahl. His palette selections were limited and bright. He would have scoffed at the litany of colors available for artists today. In his oils he painted with primary and secondary colors and those mixtures that are defined as complementary. Orange, yellow, green, blue, red: over and over, the same palette in an unending variation of composition and subject. His watercolors have a much more expansive palette and were trials for the starkness that evolves in his in his more ascetic oil paintings. In addition to his reliance on color the unique nature of his work also depended on several other issues: his reductivism, flattened and simplified planes, primitivism, a unique set of visual metaphors and various techniques used to affect texture. In much of the artist’s work there is also a sense of that the painting might be taking place in a reverie or dream. In his most somber works there are references to isolation, the spiritual, and even to death.
Color influences in early Modernism are sometimes broken into two schools: the Synchromists – followers of Stanton MacDonald Wright and Morgan Russell, and the Orphists led by Robert Delauney. The Synchromists championed the primacy of color and color harmonies in non-objective and figurative paintings. The Orphists primary concern was also color but linked through literary, musical and visual sensations in abstract and landscape paintings. Delauney’s mantra was, “Color alone is form and subject.” Remahl, working some ten years after the European introduction of these two movements, combines the color-first elements of both schools with his own sense of abstracted landscape. He seems apologetic when he admits, “I find it impossible to disregard for any length of time subject matter and form in my work, though needless to say to anyone who has seen my paintings, I am not interested in subject matter purely as an end itself.”
Part of Remahl’s artistic style is his ability to reduce the rounded shapes of landscape, facial feature and object into simple form. The artist’s work is full of flat trees, hills that might have been cut out of construction paper, and clouds that could have been ironed on. The influence for some of this comes from the artists of the Cubist movement. They were the first to abandon conventional perspective and reform it into an intellectual version of reality. In the Cubist world the palette is primarily darkened earth tones and it if often difficult to determine subject matter. In Remahl’s world colors are bright and subject matter clear. In his attempt to create simplified forms, the artist seems to be after the most basic element to represent nature – what artists sometimes call the truth of the thing. This gives way to a sense of the primitive in his work. He avoids the tradition of illusion employed in Realism and instead, for every element of a painting, he employs an intellectual authenticity devoted to finding the most reductive kernel of icon.
One of the most obvious elements of the artist’s style is his personal library of iconography: : Dolls, Trolls, Fairies, Trees, Clouds, Smoke, Rocks, Hills, Nature, Seafaring Life. These are the principal icons in Remahl’s paintings, but the artist left little record of their meaning. Some of the inspiration for his compositions would come from his years in Sweden. The art of story telling was part of country life on the little island of Remahl’s youth. The artist would fondly recall his mother’s habit of telling and retelling provincial tales. In a short article in his scrapbook entitled “An Artist Speaks” Remahl states, “The literature of youth in Sweden is beautiful “Sagor” or fairy tales. These…make my childhood as a beautiful dream.” Scandinavian lore is full of magical dolls, mischievous trolls, bewitching fairies, and nature’s elements personified with special enchantments. The Swedish countryside, the land of the midnight sun, was alive with rich tales. But the most powerful of these Scandinavian storytellers was the great Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen's fame today rests on his fairy tales written between 1835 and 1872. "The Emperor's New Clothes", "The Princess and the Pea", "The Snow Queen", and "The Ugly Duckling" all share some element with Remahl’s fairyscapes. As a writer Andersen, perhaps because of his own childhood, strikes an alliance with the unfortunate and the those outcast from the core of society. Clearly Remahl, like Andersen, could be measured amongst those artists of the late 20th Century who proudly saw themselves as “outsiders”.
16" x 19"
oil on canvas
Exhibited: THE FALL FOUR: Frederick Remahl, 2005
In his 1924 oil “Five Tables” (illustrated right) done well in advance of the Depression, he sets a scene of dining room tables absent food, two simple still life arrangements and a magnifying glass all viewed by a woman with her arms at her side in reverie. Many of the interior scenes are psychologically charged in one regard or another. In this work, the picture plane suggested by Cezanne's still lifes is reimagined with the tables themselves ready to fall off the bottom of the painting.
IV. Photograph Gallery
AT LEFT: Sketch of the artist by Don Mundt (Dated January 26, 1941) AT RIGHT: Photo of Frederick Remahl (courtesy of Daniel Remahl)
Photograph of Snesholmen, Sweden - the island home of Frederick Remahl
1901 Born Bohuslan Sweden June 18
1914 Immigrated to United States
1915 Moves to Two Harbors, Minnesota
1920-22 Attends Minneapolis School of Art
1923 Moved to Chicago with fellow artist Sigfus Sigfusson
1923 Exhibits for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago
1926 Marriage to Maria
1927 Birth to daughter Peggy
1930-1931 Minneapolis, MI Works as artist and independent art teacher
1931 Birth to son Daniel
1932 Returns to Chicago
1935 Sanctioned with Federal Arts Project Easel Division
1937-1940 Worked for WPA project
1947 Exhibited at Riverside Museum, NY
1947 Started “Remahl’s Little Gallery”
1948 Sold ‘Relics of Days Gone’ to Mew Trier High School
1948 Won purchase prize, Swedish Club, Chicago
1966 Moves to Claiborne, Maryland
1968 Died at the age of 67
17.75" x 24"
oil on canvas
Exhibited: THE FALL FOUR: Frederick Remahl, 2005
The carefully applied brush strokes and solid planes of color in this work relate the ocean and islands of the north Atlantic. The sun's particularly strong rays, which seem to be naive compositional devices, are, in fact, a realistic depiction of an atmospheric phenomenon that is unique to that remote region.
THREE DOLLS IN A TENT
18.5" x 21"
oil on canvas
Exhibited: THE FALL FOUR: Frederick Remahl, 2005; Los Angeles Art Show, 2006
The splendid pointillist-inspired brushwork in many of Remahl's best paintings here combines with his eccentric color sensibility and odd imagery to deliver an exceptionally powerful image. Although the gallery title refers to a tent, it is equally plausible that the figures are dancing around a May pole. Scandanavian mythology often focuses on the natural world the region's most famous storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen, did. Remahl's work of the 1930s is often cited as having a surrealist edge and this work fits in nicely with that idea.
Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago, IL
Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, IL
Chicago Teachers College South, Chicago, IL
Cook County Hospital, Chicago, IL
Gothenburg Museum, Sweden
New Trier High School Relics of Days Gone’, Winnetka, IL
Public Work Arts Project - 12 paintings in State Institute, Chicago, IL
Laskoff Collection, Boston, MA
Sedona Arizona Historical Art Museum, Sedona, AZ
Sullivan Goss, Private Collection, Santa Barbara, CA
Western Illinois University, Macomb, IL
VII. Evolution of the Artist's Themes
Color was everything for Remahl. He was a superb colorist whose palette selections were limited and bright. He would have scoffed at the catalog of colors available for artists today. In his oils he painted with primary, complimentary and split complimentary colors. Orange, yellow, green, blue, red were applied in an unending variation of composition and subject. His watercolors, on the other hand, have a much more expansive palette and were trials for the starkness that evolved in his more ascetic oil paintings. In addition to his reliance on color, the unique nature of his work also depended on other issues: reductivism, flattened and simplified planes, primitivism, a unique set of visual metaphors and various techniques used to affect texture. The mood in much of the artist’s work is clouded in dream. In his most somber works there are references to isolation, mysticism, and death.
Part of Remahl’s artistic gift lay in his ability to reduce the rounded shapes of landscape, facial feature and object into simple, angled form. The artist’s work is full of flat trees, hills that might have been cut out of construction paper, and clouds that could have been ironed on. So many of the influences in Remahl’s work are descendant from the forces of the Armory Show of 1913: Cezanne’s flattening of planes, Gauguin’s focus on form, Modernism’s reliance on color, and the Cubists’ passion for reduction. It was the early Cubists who first abandoned conventional perspective. They reformed it into an intellectual version of reality, a practice common in Remahl’s work. The Cubists’ palette was primarily composed of dark earth tones and it is often difficult to determine subject matter in their work. In Remahl’s world, colors are bright and subject matter is clear. In his effort to create simplified form, Remahl was after the most basic element to represent nature – what artists sometimes call “the truth of the thing.” This gives way to a sense of the primitive in Remahl’s work whereby he avoided the tradition of illusion employed in Realism. For every element of a painting, he sought the most base, clear and specific icon. In much of his work his reductive effort created a childlike simplicity also found in the primitivism of Gauguin’s Tahitian canvases and some of the work of the Fauves.
One of the most curious elements of the artist’s style was his personal library of icons: Dolls, Trolls, Fairies, Trees, Clouds, Smoke, Rocks, Hills, Nature, and the Sea. Despite the importance of these symbols, Remahl left no record of their meaning. Some of the inspiration for his compositions would come from his early years in Sweden. The art of story telling was part of country life on the little island of Remahl’s youth. The artist would fondly recall his mother’s habit of telling and retelling provincial tales. In a short article in his scrapbook entitled “An Artist Speaks,” Remahl remembers, “The literature of youth in Sweden is beautiful ‘Sagor’ or fairy tales. These…make my childhood as a beautiful dream.” Scandinavian lore is full of magical dolls, mischievous trolls, bewitching fairies, and nature’s elements personified with enchantments. The Swedish countryside, the land of the midnight sun, was alive with rich fables. The most powerful of these Scandinavian storytellers was Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen's fame today rests on fairy tales written between 1835 and 1872. "The Emperor's New Clothes", "The Princess and the Pea", "The Snow Queen", and "The Ugly Duckling" all share an element with Remahl’s fairyscapes. As a writer Andersen, perhaps because of the poverty of his own childhood, stuck an alliance with the unfortunate and those outcast from the core of society. Like Anderson, Remahl could be counted among those artists of the late 20th Century who proudly saw themselves as “outsiders”.
Remahl does not shy from the ultimate human curiosity – death. In the mid-ground of one of his paintings from the 1930's, “Figures on the Shore,” there is a blue and orange merchant vessel underway. In the foreground there are three figures; a woman in a bouffant dress, a dubious hooded and caped figure and to the right, what appears to be a body. Once again his icons created a sense of dream or nightmare in this painting with a complex iconography. He produced symbols for: one, the source of all life–woman; two, a close relationship to man and death in the hooded robe; and three, a frank depiction of death in the form of a supine body. He forces the viewer into the panorama of life that is juxtaposed with a bright merchant vessel and a startling background that includes three brilliant orange trees. In this tableau the artist calls the viewer’s attention to the primary elements of existence: life and death.
SITTING FEMALE NUDE
January 10, 1938
10" x 15"
pencil on paper
Exhibited: THE FALL FOUR: Frederick Remahl
In the estate of Frederick Remahl, there are eighteen drawings of nudes that date to 1938. These works stand out from the artist's usual repertory of graphic ideas, except for the angularity of some of these works. In his figure drawings, he showed a preference for an expressive quality of line.
1923-49 Art Institute of Chicago
1926 Gaulios GalleriesChicago, IL
1927-42 Art Institute of Chicago, IL (9 Times)
1927 Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
1928 Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.
1928 Minneapolis Art Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota
1928 Neo-Arlimuse Society
1929 Chicago, Society of Artists Show, Spring
1929 Pennsylvania Fine Art Institute
1931 Fine Art Galleries, Minneapolis State Fair
1934 57th Street Art Gallery “Bohemia” Ran by Maria Remahl
1935 Delphic Studios Exhibition, New York
1935 Swedish Club
1935 Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.
1936 Swedish American Society at Marshall Fields & Co. Chicago, IL
1936 New Jersey State Museum Exhibition, Trenton, NJ
1937 41st Annual Chicago and Vicinity Artists, Chicago, IL
1937 Tudor Gallery, Chicago Woman’s Club
1938 Mandel Bros., Chicago, IL
1938 WPA, AIC
1938 49th American Painters and Sculptors Show, AIC
1939 Riverside Museum Exhibition, New York, New York
1939 Swedish Show at Mandel Bros., Chicago, IL
1939 Art For the Public FAP
1940 Swedish American Art Association, Chicago, IL
1940 Culver Military Academy, Culver, Indiana
1941 Riverside Museum, New York, NY
1942 Mandel Gallery, Chicago, IL
1947 Riverside Museum, New York, NY
1948 48th Annual Chicago and Vicinity Artists, Chicago, IL
1948 Swedish Club, Chicago, IL
1949 Springfield, IL
1949 Swedish American Art Association at Mandel Bros., Chicago, IL
1950 Mandel Bros. Society of Artists, Snowy Hill on My Way.” Chicago, IL
1952 North Shore Art Guild, Swiss Chalet Galleries, Bismark Hotel, Chicago, IL
1952 Northwest Art League, Nyvall Hall, North Park College, IL
1953 Swiss Chalet Galleries, Bismark Hotel North Shore Art Guild, IL
1926 Gaulios Galleries, Chicago, IL
1927 Chicago Woman’s Aid, Chicago, IL
1928 Chicago Playhouse Theater, Chicago, IL
1929 Morton Galleries, New York, NY
1930 Midland Club, Chicago, IL
1931 Minnesota State Fair, Saint Paul, MN
1932 Weisenborn’s Studio, Chicago, IL
FOUR ORANGE LEAVES
9.5" x 13.5"
watercolor on paper
Exhibited: THE FALL FOUR: Frederick Remahl, 2005
In this sublimely reductive watercolor from the early 1950s, one of Remahl's ubiquitous dolls, clad in a boufant skirt and wide brimmed hat, sits in contemplation. The barrenness of the tree is mitigated by four shocking red orange leaves, but the scene seems very solitary nonetheless. This singular work seems to speak to the ideas of Existentialist philosophy, which was then in ascendancy among intellectuals and artists.
American Artist Professional League
Chicago Society of Artists – 30-year member
Illinois Academy of Fine Arts
Lake View Member
Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts
North Shore Art Guild
Northwest Art League
Society of Independent Artists (Chicago) – founding member
Swedish-American Art Association
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