A 20th-Century Art History Lesson Through the Works of Peter Blume

There is a strangely harmonious anachronism suffusing the work of late painter and sculptor Peter Blume. Born in 1906 in present-day Belarus, he emigrated with his Jewish family to New York City in 1912 and settled in Brooklyn, bringing with him, perhaps unwittingly, an innate understanding of the Russian style that would eventually evolve, in his native land, into Soviet Realism. To those Russian foundations—which lent him an early penchant for drama—he progressively added samples from a vast swathe of international styles and tastes, primary among them the narrative power of history painting à la Jacques-Louis David, the technical prowess and saturated color of Renaissance compositions, and the Romanticism appropriated in the late 1800s by New York’s Hudson River School painters.

Opening at ACA Galleries this November, and organized in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, “Peter Blume (1906–1992)” presents paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the artist’s estate, and comprises the first substantial retrospective look at his work since 1976. His career, spanning over six decades, touches on many of the most salient movements and tendencies of his time, negotiating a fanatic appreciation for the progress of industry with nostalgia for a simpler past, integrating the power and speed of urban existence with yearning for the lost peace of pastoral life, and poignantly addressing the fractious power of politics in a society wonting of spiritual security.

Eventually, Blume’s works developed to incorporate formal elements of Mexican Muralism, or the strange and baffling juxtapositions native to Surrealism, but they were always anchored by an emphasis on narration and a humility of subject that harkened back to the folk art of his Jewish heritage. A piece such as Satyr with Cock (1974), is shaped by the precise, ordered technique of Netherlandish still life, while at the same time recalling a mystical composition like Giorgio de Chirico’s The Song of Love (1914). Study for Boulders of Avila (1975), meanwhile, with its tall totems of sandy rock, stormy skies and dramatic shadow, recalls the urgently political murals of Diego Rivera. Taken all together, the works on view in this show comprise a survey of 20th-century art history, seamlessly encompassing and incorporating many of modernism’s occasionally glaring contradictions with grace and style.

—Emily Nathan

Peter Blume (1906–1992)” is on view at ACA Galleries, New York, Nov. 6, 2014–Jan. 31, 2015.

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