Saturday, June 4, 2011

Max Pollak: Portrait of Maria Ley

Max Pollak was born in Prague in 1886. He grew up in Vienna, where he studied printmaking under William Unger and Ferdinand Schmutzer. He won the Prix de Rome for his etchings in 1910. In WWI Pollak was an official war artist for the Austrian army. After spending three years in Paris, in 1927 Max Pollak emigrated to the United States, settling in San Francisco, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a member of the California Society of Etchers (winning their award in 1942, 1944, and 1945) and of the Chicago Society of Etchers (winning their award in 1942). In his American years Pollak etched scenes in Mexico and Central America, as well as California. Brilliant and accomplished as these etchings are, it is generally thought that his work in Vienna and Paris is his finest, most particularly the sensuous portraits he etched of dancers such as Maria Ley, Kitty Starling, Ronny Johansson, and Isa Marsen. These are triumphant examples of movement captured in a still image, etched in Max Pollak's typical manner with the image mainly or completely incised with a drypoint needle and the colour hand-applied to the plate for each impression, à la poupée.

Max Pollak, Maria Ley
Drypoint, 1924

Like Max Pollak, the subject of this drypoint Maria Ley emigrated to the United States, where she was known as Maria Ley-Piscator. Maria and her husband Erwin Piscator (a colleague and close friend of Bertolt Brecht) founded the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. Among their pupils were Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Walter Matthau, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Randall.


Jane Librizzi said...

So many artists, as well as scientists and writers, came to the U.S. because of war in Europe. We were lucky to receive them, but I always wonder, as I did reading this article, what was the cost to them?

Philip Wilkinson said...

What a lovely image. It has an interesting quality of line – a lot of the lines look very strong, but when you examine them closely, they are less distinct, and give the subject a shimmering quality, suggestive of her movement and vibrancy.

Neil said...

Jane - The huge intellectual and artistic exodus from Europe to the USA in the inter-war years is one of the great cultural shifts in world history - all part, of course, of a general pattern of human suffering and, for those who survived, promise.

Neil said...

Philip - Yes, there's a shimmering quality - the figure is arrested but not still. Much of the effect is achieved, I think, by the way the colour rubs over and almost dissolves the lines.

Roxana said...

this is so wonderful, pure grace.

(about 2000 artists emigrated only from Germany, starting 1933 and in the following years - what a huge number!)

Neil said...

Roxana - The sense of movement is very touching in this image - you feel that she is a living being. As for the exodus of artists, writers, intellectuals, and ordinary people from Germany in the 1930s - it is a proof of how any society can be infected with a collective madness. Let's hope future generations take note, though somehow I doubt it.