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Paintings and furniture of the 'originals' make a rare showing

A group of eight American painters from the early 20th century dubbed "The Eight" stressed individualism -- even staging their own exhibition in 1908.

Around the same time, Charles Rohlfs was making what he considered "artistic furniture" with a highly individualistic style.

The Milwaukee Art Museum has paired these individual exhibitions in one space, calling them the "American Originals," running through to August 23.

"It's extremely rare that you can look at decorative art and fine art from a single period in the same place at the same time and the resonances and the differences and ... the moments when design leaps forward and the moments when paintings leap forward," said Joseph Cunningham, one of the curators of "The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs."

It's the first major retrospective of Rohlfs' mostly oak-carved furniture and decorative pieces.

The second half of the gallery features "The Eight and American Modernisms," which includes more than 80 paintings by Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice B. Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan.

Laurie Winters, the Milwaukee Art Museum's director of exhibitions, said it's rare to put two exhibits in one gallery, but these seemed to enrich each other in terms of the time period and revisionist attitudes.

"They show how important the personal voice is and the idea of a personal artist statement is -- in some ways it anticipates what we see in contemporary art today: the individual voice," Winters said.

Rohlfs pursued acting but also worked as a pattern maker and designed cast iron stoves in Buffalo, New York. He also did woodwork and carved as a hobby.

He started making furniture because he didn't like what was available. He didn't sell it professionally until his mid-40s, offering it through Marshall Field & Co.

He charged three to four times more than the competition -- such as Gustav Stickley -- so he didn't sell much, Cunningham said.

The family was mostly supported by his mystery novelist-wife Anna Katharine Green, who also helped him design some furniture -- something not widely known previously, Cunningham said.

Most of his elaborate, labor-intensive pieces ended up in his home, he said.

"It would be impossible at this point to put back together everything he once had in his home," he said.

"So in a funny way we can't claim this is the greatest exhibition ever. If you had been invited to his home like around 1920 that would have been the best."

Rohlfs' pieces -- desks, chairs, chests, lamps, cabinets, tables, rockers -- scattered after his death in 1936, mostly to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Princeton University Art Museum.

But almost every major American museum that collects American decorative art from that period has a Rohlfs piece.

"The Eight" get their name from their 1908 exhibition at the MacBeth Galleries in New York. Henri organized it because he was frustrated with the jury process for National Academy of Design's 1907 spring exhibition. "The Eight" organizer Elizabeth Kennedy said the men symbolize the experimentation of what it meant to be modern in the early 20th century.

"These guys wanted to get out and show you what everyday life was about but they really were not showing it with an agenda," she said.

Some liked to associate the group with the Ashcan School of social realism or describe then as "urban realists," but they were much more -- experimenting with color and theory in their nudes, landscapes, portraits and street scenes, Kennedy said.

She described them as "very masculine." Four of them -- Glackens, Luks, Shinn and Sloan -- were at one time newspaper illustrators.

"These were just regular guys who played baseball ... very bourgeois," she said.

She said they were not only rebels in 1908 but later progressive modern artists, inspiring other American artists with their individualism.

"(They said) 'You do what's right for you, artists. Don't look to Europe for an answer, don't be a copycat of a Cubist. You find out what you want to paint and then you paint it'." she said.

"It's certainly American individualism at large, which is what our motto in this country seems to be," Kennedy said.


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