Go to 15 Bytes Home
page 6
   November 2009
Page 5    

0 | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

Is this your grandfather? Tom Alder of Williams Fine Art is offering a free copy of Painters of Utah's Canyons and Deserts to whomever can help identify the greatest number of sitters in these unidentified portraits b Al Gittins. Additional images at Elizabeth Peterson's research site.

Alder's Accounts
Remembering Alvin Gittins
by Elizabeth A. Peterson

This month's Alder's Accounts column is being guest-written by my friend, former University of Utah Department of Art and Art History chair, and my thesis chair, Professor Elizabeth Peterson. I had planned to write about Alvin Gittins, Utah's foremost figurative artist, until learned Elizabeth was writing a catalog and book about him. I asked if she would consent to share some of her knowledge in the November column. The scholarliness of her writing puts me to shame but I figured that you deserved some professionalism occasionally. My column will reappear next month, so in the mean time, please enjoy Professor Peterson's Gittins treatise and images.

Nearly three decades have gone by without the presence of Alvin Gittins, painter extraordinaire. For those who knew him, the name alone sparks vivid memories of his personality alongside his best works. Recent interviews with his former students and colleagues testify to the profound effect he had on them. Some individuals who modeled for him can remember clearly the circumstances of the painting or drawing. All agree, moreover, that he was a prolific artist who could easily capture the essential nature of his sitters. The rumor that a book is being written on the life and art of Alvin Gittins is completely true and the writer invites your help as described at the end of this essay.

As a professor of life drawing and figure painting from 1948 until his death in 1981 in the U of U's Art Department, Gittins flourished as a painter and educator. His specialties in portraiture and figure studies were complemented by a body of still-lifes and, at the end of his career, landscapes. All told, more than 600 works tell the story of a man committed to his art form. It is not surprising to find so many of his paintings and drawings in Utah public buildings and in museums in Utah, California and elsewhere. No less remarkable are the many works now in private collections, a bit more challenging to locate.

"Alvin Gittins, Realist," the well-known 1976 film by Claudia Sisemore, reveals the principles favored by Gittins. There, he speaks of the high north light coming in at 45 degrees that is crucial to the illumination of the subject. He often used the word "gestalt" to capture the ideas of likeness, gesture, and personality as core features of great portraits. He insisted that no tube of paint labeled "flesh" should ever be used, and he sometimes held a colored card under a model's chin to show how skin color reflected the colors of adjacent forms. Early in his career, Gittins taught art appreciation and art historical surveys where he could include discussions about the so-called "Old Masters" from whom he developed his own techniques in draftsmanship, palette, light and shade, and composition.

Professor Gittins' former students even now have no trouble recalling his favorite phrases delivered authoritatively in his British accent. "What is the total effect?" "Work from the general to the particular." "Maximize the maximal and minimize the minimal." "Always overstate the gesture." "Observe the idiosyncratic differences among people." "Explicate and explain; don't just mindlessly copy and imitate the form." They also recount their memories of his immaculate dress, whether he was working or not, and of their own trepidation that they would be the one to get paint on him.

Barry Lynn, a professional dancer who modeled for Alvin Gittins for more than twenty years, fondly remembers Gittins's dry wit and sense of humor that could help him get through the sometimes grueling modeling sessions in and out of the classroom. Barry had the ability of many in his profession to flex a particular muscle on command for a student to draw the underlying bone structure beneath the skin. Other models recall how Gittins selected them for some fascinating feature he wanted his students to draw.

Alvin Gittins' dedication to the education of his students is easily discovered in the extraordinary opportunities he arranged to enhance the basic curriculum. He co-authored the syllabus for humanities long before the notion of cross-disciplinary study was popularized in academic learning. Students who were selected for his study abroad quarters in Europe and Mexico valued their experiences. Gittins was frequently invited to participate in public dialogues on KUED and KSL that he carried off with his usual eloquent flair.

Portraiture was a cornerstone of his artistic career. His early work as an illustrator and portrait artist got him through the "war years" of WW II, and Gittins gratefully accepted a scholarship to BYU at the end of his mission in London. Even the most cursory glance at his portraits across forty years shows improvements in his technique and changes in his style. While he has been, occasion, dismissed as out of touch in the wake of the modernist movement, Alvin Gittins was not averse to experimentation; he certainly valued modernists he brought in as visiting artists or invited for the international invitational exhibitions he curated. His perspective on his own discipline merits a more thoughtful discussion.

This writer is looking for further information in several areas to supplement the archive repository at the U. The most problematic areas of research include his exhibition history, artworks in private collections, and his gallery representation. Do you own a student figure study, a drawing or a painting or any high-resolution digital images, especially from his exhibitions, you would be willing to share? Did you keep any of his letters or other documents that help illuminate more of his life and career? Are there any models, who might be willing to contribute their recollections? Which stories do you think provide the essential nature of Alvin Gittins?

If you have any information that can help with this project contact Elizabeth Peterson at elizabeth.peterson@utah.edu. You can view more unidentified works by Gittins at this research site.
Collector Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Influence After Life
The Winifred Hudnuts, and Arts of Africa at the UMFA

The public loves a character; and in the world of art the personalities behind the creations serve to make an artist famous as much as the paintings or sculptures. The people who collect art can be just as colorful as those who make it.

A pair of Utah's more colorful collectors is a mother-daughter pair -- Winifred Kimball Hudnut and Natacha Rambova -- that spent little of their adult lives in the state but who helped found the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Rambova's collection of Egyptian artifacts forms the basis for the UMFA's current exhibit, Africa: Arts of a Continent.

Winifred Hudnut (nee Kimball) was the granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball, an early Mormon apostle, counselor to Brigham Young and energetic polygamist.

Like her grandfather, Winifred had a penchant for marrying, though she chose to do so consecutively rather than simultaneously. She got started at twenty-one when she married Edmund Butts, a first lieutenant from New York stationed at Fort Douglas. At the time she was known as the "handsomest girl in Salt Lake" and he was a dashing bachelor. They divorced two years later and Winnie soon married Michael Shaughnessy, an Irish Catholic who perpetuated an unfortunate stereotype by turning out to be an alcoholic and a gambler. Before they divorced she bore him a daughter, Winifred Shaughnessy, in 1897. Mother and daughter next headed to San Fransisco, where Winnie the elder married a third time, to Edgar De Wolfe, a prominent interior designer. This marriage gave the family financial stability and a place in society, but tensions now grew between mother and the ever more rebellious daughter.

Winnie junior was shipped off to a British boarding school where she became interested in art and ballet. At 17, still at odds with her parents, she changed her name to Natacha Rambova, became a dancer in New York and had a tumultuos affair with choreographer Theodore Kosloff. Meanwhile her mother divorced again and married her final husband, Richard Hudnut, a millionaire perfume manufacturer. Rambova eventually became a designer, producer and actress in Hollywood, where she championed the introduction of the Art Deco style. She also became a fashion icon, her profile increased when she married Rudolph Valentino. The two married in Mexico while Valentino was still going through a divorce, causing the actor to face charges of violating the Mann White Slave act (that he played his famous role as "The Sheik" that year may just have been coincidence). They were married a second time in the States to make things legit, but the marriage didn't last. Valentino's friends claimed Rambova was controlling and ruining his career. The divorce in 1925 was bitter and when Valentino died in 1926 he left her one dollar in his will.

Rudolph Valentino, Winifred Hudnut, Natacha Rambova and Richard Hudnut
0 | 1

Rambova had more than enough money from Hudnut, her adoptive stepfather, however, who died in 1928. Rambova married a second time, to a Spaniard, but divorced during the Spanish Civil War.

Throughout her life Rambova was a spiritualist, believed in reincarnation and psychic powers and claimed to be in contact with Valentino after his death. Her interest in ancient religions led her to become an accomplished Egyptologist, and in her later years she helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions. She also amassed an impressive collection of Egyptian artifacts.

In 1947 the elder Winifred Hudnut, who had remained in New York after her husband's death, announced that she would be donating her substantial art collection of 500,000 objects, consisting of furniture, wall hangings, paintings, silks and tapestries, to the state of Utah as soon as a suitable facility to house them could be built. This collection would become the nucleus of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Rambova followed her mother's example two years later, donating some of her own Egyptian artifacts to the Museum. Upon her death in 1966, the remainder of the Egyptian art objects in her personal collection were added.

The most noteworthy of the works in Africa: Arts of a Continent, one of the Museum's newest acquisitions, is one that was not in Rambova's collection but which continues her work in Egyptology. When the late XXVI Dynasty (664-525 BCE) sarcophagus arrived at the Museum last September, its former occupant's identity was unknown. To solve this mystery, the UMFA consulted John H. Taylor, Assistant Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, who was able to translate two strands of hieroglyphs on the front of the sarcophagus. The occupant was an Egyptian man, Taylor determined, named Padiusir, which means “He who Osiris has given.” The sarcophagus is richly decorated with symbolic religious scenes and elaborate incantations, all meant to protect Padiusir’s Ka, or spiritual double, in the afterlife.

Themes of burial and the underworld resonate throughout the exhibit's first gallery, which includes amulets that were placed in linen wrappings during mummification, cosmetic jars created as necessary tomb furnishings, and statues of important deities to accompany the Ka. These works are augmented by objects from diverse African tribes organized around three pertinent themes: "Beauty All Around," "The Many Faces of Masks," and "Mystery and Magic: Seeking Knowledge from the Gods and Ancestors."

Africa: Arts of a Continent is on view at the UMFA through September 4, 2011. See it this month and Artists of Utah suggests the following related art tour: Next trek to Utah County where the themes of Masks, Mystery and Magic continues. The newly opened exhibit Mirror Mirror at the BYU Museum of Art xplores the masks of self-identity and how they form and constrict us. On the same level of the Museum you'll see an exhibit of the Western version of picturing the divine. Follow this up with a contemporary look on the same theme at the Springville Museum of Art (see more on these exhibits on page 10).
Become an Underwriter