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  • Writer's pictureLisa Lehman Trager

Remembrances of Schwanny

It’s a sad fact that most of the artwork Harold Lehman created, and especially the work he did in Los Angeles during the 1930’s has either been lost or destroyed. Back in 1992, he made a concerted effort to track down a bas-relief he created while a student at Manual Arts High School of his mentor and art teacher, Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky. In 1992, Lehman tracked the sculpture down to Schwankovsky’s daughter, Carolyn:


Letter from Harold Lehman to Carolyn Knute in 1992:

Frederick J. Schwankovsky, Harold Lehman. Bas-relief. 1929.
Original bas-relief of Schwanny

It's almost like Stanley and Livingston (although I can’t say who is which) but it gave me enormous satisfaction to finally reach and talk to you… Now where do we go from here… Ideally, of course, I’d like to see the bas-relief cast in bronze. (Plaster is such a fugitive material always subject to breakage and deterioration.) I’m astonished that after all these years (61!) it’s still in good condition. I must tell you that of all the sculptures I did in L.A. and left there when I came to N.Y. (1935) every single one has disappeared – except “Schwanny!” So, you see, you are the ‘keeper of the light! ‘ [1]


Unfortunately, nothing ever came of this and thirty-one years later, I too was wondering what ever happened to that bas-relief of Schwankovsky. So, one day last February, I decided to Google the name Schwankovsky with the hope that I too could locate the sculpture. I came upon two people with that last name living in the Los Angeles area. I reached out to both Lenore and Diane, and they were in fact Schwankovsky’s granddaughters. After his daughter Carolyn passed away, the bas-relief was handed down to Lenore. Thanks to her, over the last few months, we were able to get the bas-relief, now 93 years old, cast into bronze.


Recent bronze casts made from the bas-relief of Schwankovsky by Harold Lehman.
Recent bronze casts made from the bas-relief of Schwanny.

Who was Frederick J. Schwankovsky?

Frederick John Vrain Schwankovsky lived from 1885-1974. He was a legendary art teacher who headed the Art Department at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, CA and taught the life drawing class there from 1919 to 1947. Schwanny, as his students called him, truly believed in his students and exposing them to new ideas. Not only did Schwanny have a profound influence on my father, Harold Lehman, but also Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston (formerly Phillip Goldstein), and many other artists who were fortunate enough to pass his way as students at Manual Arts.


Afterwards, he moved to Laguna Beach, and became very involved in the Laguna Beach Art Association and wrote a column on art for the South Coast News. He was a devotee of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, and incorporated elements of his spiritual beliefs into his paintings.


Theosophy and Krishnamurti

During the 1920’s Los Angeles became fertile ground for new religions and religious cults. Although raised an Episcopalian, Schwankovsky responded enthusiastically to the opportunities for religious “experimentation” that Los Angeles offered at the time. As the biography of Jackson Pollock by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith said, “At various times, he described himself as a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Rosicrucian. [2]


His attraction to Eastern religions led Schwankovsky to the Theosophical Society, which combined ideas from science, religion, and philosophy. Known as the “godmother of the New Age movement,” Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founded the Society in 1875. Initially the organization sought unity between science and religion and was the introduction many Europeans and Americans had to learn about Eastern religion. Theosophy sought to reconcile the inconsistencies between newly discovered scientific facts, like the age of the world and Darwinism, which challenged Christian dogma.


By 1920, The Theosophical Society had grown to 45,000 members and had headquarters in Benares, India and Ommen, Holland. At the same time, the California school system gave students in southern California psychological tests that revealed an unusual increase in child prodigies in the area. As a result, a popular magazine reported predictions that “a new sixth sub-race”[3] would arise. Ojai, California became the destination for many seeking a religious sanctuary and refuge for experiencing the new spirituality and enlightenment through the occult.

Jiddu Krshnamurti, spiritual leader of the Theosophists who practiced in Ojai, California in the 1920s.
Jiddu Krishnamurti

In May 1929, Jiddu Krishnamurti, a “messiah” discovered living near the Theosophical headquarters in India, was invited by the Society to come to Ojai. This “World Teacher,” gave his first lecture on the topic of “Happiness through Liberation” at the Hollywood Bowl.Schwankovsky was one of 16,000 in attendance and soon became a follower of Krishnamurti as well as his personal friend. He brought select students, including Lehman, Pollock, and Guston to Ojai to meet Krishnamurti and had their class read his best-selling book, The Light on the Path.



Pollock was intrigued. He grew his hair long and began to dress like his idol, Krishnamurti.

He wrote his brother Charles several times, explaining the theories as best he could and urging him to read The Light on the Path. “Everything it has to say seems to be contrary to the essence of modern life,” he wrote, “but after it is understood and lived up to I think it is a very helpful guide. I wish you would get one and tell me what you think of it.” [4]

Color Theory

Frederick J. Schwankovsky. Woman at the Piano Oil on canvas, 1940 Courtesy Laguna Beach Museum
Frederick J. Schwankovsky. Woman at the Piano Oil on canvas, 1940 Courtesy Laguna Beach Museum

Although Schwankovsky was not a musician, he was very influenced by music. His father, also named Frederick J. Schwankovsky, created the Schwankovsky Temple of Music in 1879 to sell pianos, organs, and other musical merchandise. He commissioned Gordon W. Lloyd, a well-known Detroit architect to build this landmark building, on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. It was one of the first high-rise buildings, equipped with an electric elevator and brass concerts were given from the 6th floor balcony. As a teenager, Schwankovsky helped sell pianos with his father at the store. His mother, and then his wife were accomplished pianists. Schwankovsky was known to paint the colors that he heard while his wife Nellie played the piano.


Published in 1931, Schwankovsky wrote, The Use and Power of Color, which he described as “A practical Treatise for artist and layman.” He made the connection that light and color are not only “a phenomenon believed by science to be due to an electrical type of activity in the magnetic field called space, but that color is a sensation, which has dimensions.” His theory was that color and music share the same laws of harmony and have similar physiological effects.

It is interesting to notice that red, yellow, and blue are, roughly, the hues which strike the C natural tonic triad, or in music the most fundamental of tonic major triads. So, the artist has instinctively reacted to the same laws of harmony in color that have been actually worked out in music.[5]

Schwankovsky encouraged his students to experiment with color and paint and to “expand their consciousnesses.” According to his daughter Elizabeth, who often modeled for Schwankovsky’s art classes, he advised students to “let your mind go and paint whatever’s in your thoughts.” He played music and read poetry to the students while they sketched and encouraged them to paint what they dreamt.

Frederick J. Schwankovsky. The Use and Power of Color. 1931
Frederick J. Schwankovsky. The Use and Power of Color. 1931

He would demonstrate experiments pouring oil paint on glass plates covered with water, or watercolors into alcohol and turpentine creating “crazed looking patterns in the liquid.” From his days working as a scenic artist in Hollywood, he would have his students do experiments using canvas, “combining materials, mixing matte surfaces with shiny ones. Anything to break out of the mold.” Whether this had an impact on Jackson Pollock’s later work is a question, but Pollock recalled the days with Schwankovsky 30 years later to his wife Lee Krasner. The exposure to Theosophy and Krishnamurti, and experiences at Manual Arts High School had a profound impact on Pollock, Lehman, Guston, and many of Schwankovsky’s other students in their formative years.


Progressive Educational Methods

Lehman recalled, “Although Schwankovsky spent little time in the classroom, he often invited students into his office for “gabfests.” In the pamphlet, Newer and Progressive Educational Methods: That Help to Give Every Child a Fair Start in Life,” Schwankovsky wrote an article, “Creative Art Release in Young People.

The first thing I do in facing a new class is to see them as very ancient egos. I reach out to them telepathically, and speak to the wise old Selves behind those callow young bodies… Next, I take them thoroughly into my confidence and lay all of my cards on the table.”[6]

He believed in being transparent with his students. By being truthful and bestowing confidence in his students, he believed a mutual trust would develop. The goal was for the students to begin to have more confidence and belief in themselves.

Frederick J. Schwankovsky. Creative Art Release in Young People. Est. 1933
Frederick J. Schwankovsky. Creative Art Release in Young People. Est. 1933

What is my successful method? In brief it is first to make the individual somewhat conscious of his own greatness. Second it is to release him from misplaced reverenced for mundane and routine matters and institutions. Let him realize the fallibility of the teacher, of the superintendent, of the system or the president, of all things human, and realize his aloneness with the real value of his true Self. [7]



From his teaching methods, to clashes with the administration, Schwankovsky was certainly considered rebellious for his time. Famously, he brought nude models into the drawing classes and had fights with the administration.

Harold Lehman. Nude 1931. Los Angeles, CA.
Harold Lehman. Nude 1931. Los Angeles, CA.

Dr. Wilson, (the Principal) said, "Mr. Schwankovsky, I think you're kind of going overboard a little bit here." I said, "Doc, if you'll just keep your office help out of here, we'll never have any trouble." But then I would go back to putting a brassiere on the girl for a month of two until it was all forgotten, and then the brassiere would come off again. Oh, I fought my way! And the stories kept coming back to me from, say, the librarian, about how the art students respected the medical books and other books with nude bodies in them. Things like that. And how improved their point-of-view was. And the parents. I never had any complaints from the parents.[8]




And when the school authorities completely forbade the models in the school, he continued having nude models for his students to draw in classes held in the evening at another school.


Schwankovsky supported his students who were rebelling against the administration. Pollock and Guston were in constant battles with the administration over the school’s emphasis on sports, as well as course requirements. In a small, printed brochure, distributed throughout the Manual Arts Campus, which allegedly Pollock and Guston contributed, school reform was advocated.

STUDENTS OF MANUAL ARTS: We present for your consideration the serious problems of good judgment in relative values in this high school. We deplore most heartily the unreasonable elevation of athletic ability and the consequent degradation of scholarship. Instead of yelling, “hit that line,” we should cry, “make that grade.” Give those letters to our scholars, our artists, and our musicians instead of animated examples of physical prowess. Give our offices to executives instead of varsity men… Too much emphasis has been placed on the physical end of school life; too little on the mental. We have before us a difficult task. Let us face it bravely. STUDENTS, MANUAL NEEDS REFORM. ARE YOU MEN ENOUGH TO GIVE IT? [9]

Soon after, Pollock was expelled, and Guston suspended. Schwankovsky went to bat for both students, ensuring they could return to Manual Arts. The only requirement for Pollock was that he attend two art classes. It was in the clay modeling class, that Pollock met Harold Lehman, where they became good friends.


A Complex Man

Schwankovsky was a man of contradictions. Counter to his exuberance for trying to expand his student’s minds and teaching experimentation in art, personally, he disliked modern art. He felt that modern artists had no firm basis or technique. In a 1933 magazine article, Schwankovsky wrote that “the new art required no preparation.”

They'd never learned anything. The only things they can make are ugly things. Now I can make ... I can teach somebody in a week to make ugly faces; in fact, it wouldn't take that long. But to make a good-looking face requires very, very careful training; you have to know something about anatomy.[10]

As evidence of Schwankovsky’s disdain for modern art, his son Frederick and his wife taught their parakeet, Percy Shelley to say, “Grandfather says down with modern art.” Schwankovsky certainly had a dim view of these new artists:

In the first place, they were not only atheists and drunkards and homosexuals; you can't just get all het up and admire people like that! And they were almost entirely of that type, and they were dregs of humanity. So it may not be that way now. That was at the beginning; that was 20 years ago. I have friends who are painting modernistically and they're perfectly nice people now. But that isn't the way it was then; these were a really militant bunch of deviationists.[11]

Legacy

The legacy of Schwanny as a teacher and mentor, has endured. The lessons he taught exposed his students to new ideas, ways of understanding the world, and using experimentation in the artwork they created. Over the years, his students numbered the thousands. In each one, he tried to instill the confidence to believe in themselves and to follow their own intuition.


My father continued searching for the bas-relief he created of his mentor till the end of his life because Schwankovsky filled such an important role in his formative years. And ironically, despite Schwankovsky’s disdain for modern art, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, considered two of the greatest modern artists of the twentieth century, continued to sing his praises for the rest of their lives.

 

Many thanks to Robert Wenzke and Artisan Bronze Foundry in Oxnard, Ca for the fine work they did on creating the bronze and plaster casts from the original 93-year old plaster bas-relief.


1. Letter from Harold Lehman to Carolyn Knute. 1992

2. Naifeh, Steven and White Smith, Gregory. Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. Harper Perennial. ©1989

3. Mcwillliams, Carey, The Cults of California. The Atlantic. March 1946 Issue. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1946/03/the-cults-of-california/655250/

4. Naifeh and White Smith

5. Schwankovsky, Frederick, J. The Use and Power of Color. Duncan, Vail Company, Los Angeles, CA. © 1931

6. Schwankovsky, Frederick J. “Creative Art Release in Young People”, Newer and Progressive Educational Methods.

7. Schwankovsky, Frederick J. “Creative Art Release in Young People”

8. Schwankovsky interview with Hoag.

9. Naifeh and White Smith.

10. Frederick J. Schwankovsky interview with Betty Lochrie Hoag. Oral History, Archives of America Art. 3/1/1965. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-frederick-schwankovsky-12611#overview

11. Schwankovsky interview with Hoag.

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