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Edward Hagedorn / MATRIX 170

July 15, 1996 - August 20, 1996

The Rainbow, 1930s

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

When Berkeley-based artist Edward Hagedorn died in 1982, few members of the Bay Area art-going public would have known of his work. Although he lived in the Bay Area for eighty years, after much early success the eccentric and idealistic Hagedorn, troubled by personal shyness, ceased to exhibit his work publicly in the late 1930s. Yet he remained obsessed with creating images of primal force. Despite living the last thirty years of his life as a virtual recluse-described by an artist colleague as a "walking question mark with no use for success"-he left behind him a remarkable body of work that is only now coming to be known. This work suggests that it is fair to appraise Hagedorn as the most important Expressionist artist to have come out of California.

Three significant art historical events in the early twentieth century can be said to have had a profound impact on Hagedorn's artistic development. The first was the Armory Show in New York in 1913, the seminal exhibition that first exposed most American artists to modernist European art movements including Impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism, and Cubism. The second was the Pan-Pacific Exposition of 1915, dominated by American Impressionism, that influenced the California movement known as "The Society of Six." The third event-and the only one that Hagedorn, born in 1902, experienced directly-was the "Blue Four" exhibition held in 1926 at the Oakland Art Association (now the Oakland Museum), which brought the Expressionist work of Klee, Jawlencky, Kandinsky, and Feininger to the Bay Area's attention for the first time.

Born in San Francisco in 1902, Hagedorn enrolled at the San Francisco Art Association by the age of sixteen, and then around 1923 to 1925 at the California School of Fine Arts, where his teachers included artists who had been profoundly influenced by the Armory Show and who had even participated in the Pan-Pacific Exposition. From the start Hagedorn exhibited a special fascination with German art, although some of his early landscapes betray an interest in the lyrical French mode of André Derain or Maurice Denis. Hagedorn must have found Hans Hofmann's brilliantly colored abstractionism, and his teaching in Berkeley, a challenge, too, augmenting for him the presence of so many German modernists who had been brought by Alfred Neumeyer to teach at Mills College in the 1930s, creating something of a German-East Bay
modernist alliance.

Hagedorn publicly exhibited, most notoriously in 1927 at the Oakland Art Gallery, an event that provoked a brief scandal because of the "immoral" nature of his painting-a female nude, a genre in which he worked throughout his life. This was, however, the period of Hagedorn's greatest artistic production, from roughly 1925 to 1940, when he worked in an extraordinary range of graphic techniques, including etching, drypoint, linoleum cut, woodcut, lithography, and monotype. A number of his prints take maximum advantage of his sharp-edged contrast of black and white that is possible in linoleum cuts, featuring dramatically anguished single figures wrapped in chains or enveloped hopelessly in the darkness of a prison cell.

More importantly, Hagedorn's diversity at this time can be described on a second level, that of the imaginative wealth of his imagery in the service of profound, often neurotic, and politically astute content. Based in the violent and repressive politics of the 1930s and early 1940s, the best of these images engage with European Expressionism without blindly following the style's tenets, nor succumbing to the ironic detachment of the Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s. Instead, Hagedorn's images remain engaged, powerful, even forbidding. What can be termed the "anti-war images" drew on memories of the First World War and were carried out against the context of the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of World War II. Their monumentalizing quality is direct and arresting, and continues to feel surprisingly contemporary. Many feature the skeletal figure of Death, oddly suggestive of Bergman's vision of Death in The Seventh Seal, sometimes grinning as he views a line of faceless soldiers or stands guard over a tangle of dead bodies. Even in these images, however, Hagedorn's obsessions could be tempered by a morbid sense of humor: a thin skeleton may arch over an unsuspecting town like a rainbow, or stride around in oversized boots with an obscene insouciance.

Hagedorn continued to mind other artistic veins as well, carrying out important Expressionist-influenced landscapes, usually sharply drawn-landscapes of the imagination that often evoke the anthropomorphizing Surrealistic tinge of Max Ernst or Salvaador Dali. Such work is charged (literally, in his ongoing use of motifs such as comets and lightning bolts) with a post-Freudian awareness, with organic forms seemingly drawn from deep in the artist's subconscious. Works such as these drawn from different media-preparatory studies, relief prints, and linoleum cuts-help make clear the artist's fascination with the emotive capacity of his materials, and his fascination with color.
Hagedorn exhibited frequently throughout the late 1920s and '30s with members of the "Society of Six," even winning honors from the Brooklyn Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy, sharing their Fauvist-influenced, Expressionist aesthetic. How- ever he resisted frequent overtures from dealers and curators that might have brought him increased acclaim. Enabled in part by the inheritance of substantial means from his maternal family, Hagedorn abruptly ceased to show his work publicly in the late 1930s. The spirit went out of much of his work from about 1940, and although Hagedorn continued to make art throughout most of his life, it often devolved into trivializing depictions of the female nude. At his death, intestate, in 1982, he left the bulk of his early work-along with an estate of close to a million dollars in cash-in boxes in the attic of his Woolsey Street home.

James Steward

This exhibition has been made possible with the assistant of Mrs. Paul L. Wattis, the National Endowment for the Arts, the LEF Foundation, the California Arts Council, the University Art Museum Council MATRIX Endowment Fund, and an anonymous donor. Special thanks are due to Denenberg Fine Arts, San Francisco, for their enthusiastic cooperation in making possible this exhibition.