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Review: In PMCA's 'Golden Twenties,' Joseph Kleitsch documents Laguna's allure

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp®

Joseph Kleitsch, Curiosity (Mission San Juan Capistrano), 1924. Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles II Pasadena Museum of California Art

Off-Ramp arts correspondent Marc Haefele reviews a new exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, “The Golden Twenties: Portraits and Figure Paintings by Joseph Kleitsch.” Check it out through August 6.

Throughout 1910, Joseph Kleitsch painted Chicago’s affluent and unknown. Then he came to Laguna Beach in 1920.

Joseph Kleitsch, Laguna Road II, c. 1929–30. Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches. Private Collection
Joseph Kleitsch, Laguna Road II, c. 1929–30. Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches. Private Collection Pasadena Museum of California Art

There are commissioned portraits of the rich Chicagoans, but it’s his un-commissioned portraits that grab the passion of the subject and toss it in the viewer’s face.

Joseph Kleitsch, Miss Ketchum, c. 1918. Oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches. Private Collection
Joseph Kleitsch, Miss Ketchum, c. 1918. Oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches. Private Collection Pasadena Museum of California Art

 “Miss Ketchum,” for instance, looks as tough, alluring, and engaging as an ingénue in a Ford Maddox Ford novel. Under her carefully disarrayed hair, she stares you down with her deep violet eyes, and seems to dress at least a decade later than the picture’s 1917 date. 

Then there is Kleitsch himself, in a 1915 self-portrait — his raffish stare seems already to be seeking horizons beyond the Windy City. He found them in Laguna Beach in 1920.

Joseph Kleitsch, Self-Portrait, 1909. Oil on canvas, 54 x 38 inches. Private Collection
Joseph Kleitsch, Self-Portrait, 1909. Oil on canvas, 54 x 38 inches. Private Collection Pasadena Museum of California Art

The PMCA's show calls itself “The Golden Twenties.” That’s not quite fair. There is plenty of fine earlier work. Besides “Miss Ketchum,” there is an anecdotal portrait called “Problematicus,” at once a study in amber and yellow and a metaphor of the difference between portrait and artist. 

Joseph Kleitsch, Problematicus, 1918. Oil on canvas, 60 x 55 inches. Collection of Robert and Susan Ehrlich
Joseph Kleitsch, Problematicus, 1918. Oil on canvas, 60 x 55 inches. Collection of Robert and Susan Ehrlich Pasadena Museum of California Art

There’s a view of his studio with his model disrobing in a closet that evokes the drab disorder of the artist’s work space, right down to a radiator in the corner. There’s a pair of proud, prepubescent street boys, hanging in a Chicago alley. There is also work he did in Mexico which both evokes the gypsies of his Eastern European childhood and presages his California pictures. 

There's also a strikingly meditative 1919 portrait of Isador Berger, a Chicago violinist, that reminds me of Hungarian painter Karolyi Ferenczy’s 1904 mythic, violin-playing “Orpheus.” Having moved to the US in the early 1900s, however, Hungarian-born Kleitsch may never have seen Ferenczy’s original. We know little of Kleitsch’s Hungarian background. The town of his 1882 birth is given as Nemet Szent Mihaly (“German St. Michael’’) in what’s become Romania. 

Installation view, The Golden Twenties: Portraits and Figure Paintings by Joseph Kleitsch, March 5–August 6, 2017, Pasadena Museum of California Art, photo © 2017 Don Milici
Installation view, The Golden Twenties: Portraits and Figure Paintings by Joseph Kleitsch, March 5–August 6, 2017, Pasadena Museum of California Art, photo © 2017 Don Milici Don Milici

His only known training was by an itinerant painter. But somehow, he imbibed the tradition of Habsburg Imperial landscape painting, which he would bring all the way to the OC. 

Laguna’s alluring sunlight, topography and seaside location have drawn artists by the thousands ever since, but in 1920, Kleitsch was there to see Laguna rise from a frontier village to a booming resort town. He continued his formal portrait business in LA, but, as he put the Orange Coast’s 1920s splendors to canvas, he became one of California’s leading plein air painters.

Installation view, The Golden Twenties: Portraits and Figure Paintings by Joseph Kleitsch, March 5–August 6, 2017, Pasadena Museum of California Art, photo © 2017 Don Milici
Installation view, The Golden Twenties: Portraits and Figure Paintings by Joseph Kleitsch, March 5–August 6, 2017, Pasadena Museum of California Art, photo © 2017 Don Milici Don Milici

The PMCA’s show gives us an appealing selection of Kleitsch’s early-20s portrayals of his family and friends in his newfound paradise. In their highly impressionistic settings of vaulted eucalyptus groves and lion-colored rocky shorescapes, his son Eugene and his wife Edna seem freshly landed in a brave new world that still awes them. Kleitsch is painting himself and family into his beloved new environment.

Joseph Kleitsch, Café las Ondas, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 32 x 39 ½ inches. Private Collection, from the Estate of Pearl Martin
Joseph Kleitsch, Café las Ondas, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 32 x 39 ½ inches. Private Collection, from the Estate of Pearl Martin Pasadena Museum of California Art

There are also effective, sensitive studies of the local Hispanic community -- workers on the then-ongoing restoration of Mission San Juan Capistrano, an elderly storyteller and his youthful audience, a pair of young Chicanas who appear in several pictures. 

New, unconventional paint textures appear here: clearly Kleitsch is moving in a new direction in Laguna. So I was surprised to learn that in 1926, he took off for a long, solo sojourn in Europe. The resulting paintings may be some of his most accomplished, but they also directly derive from the powerful new influences he encountered here in Southern California. 

Joseph Kleitsch, Nudes, c. 1929–30. Oil on canvas, 20 ½ x 18 inches. Collection of Linda and 
David O’Hoy
Joseph Kleitsch, Nudes, c. 1929–30. Oil on canvas, 20 ½ x 18 inches. Collection of Linda and David O’Hoy Pasadena Museum of California Art

These influences seem to bring a new glory into his style once he returned home to Laguna, and his beachfront paintings, along with a nearly-abstract “Three Nudes,” carry him in a virtuosic, modern, new direction. His sudden death in 1931 leaves you wondering what he might soon have become. But we can only marvel at what he’d already attained.

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