REBORN AT STETSON 


Vera Bluemner Kouba was a regular at Stetson University's music performances. The retired Deltona resident, daughter of modernist painter Oscar Bluemner, had always embraced the arts. But she shocked everyone when she approached the private DeLand university about leaving it more than 1,000 of her father's works that had been stashed in her modest home since his death in 1938.

Her estate was sorted during lengthy court proceedings and the university took possession of the works — mostly colorful watercolors on paper and a handful of oil paintings — in 2004. Bluemner Kouba, who died in 1997, had no children and no living relatives. The collection, appraised at $2.6 million years ago, is worth much more today.

"I think that at the end of her life `Bluemner Kouba` was fixed on the idea that her father never got the attention he deserved, which was entirely accurate," says Roberta Favis, chair of the university's art department and curator of the collection. "He was German, which made people nervous and made him unpopular right after World War I. He fell somewhat off the radar."

Bluemner, now considered a key 20th- century American artist, lived a tragic life, spending many of his years depressed, alone and living in poverty. He was largely ignored during his lifetime. His vibrant works typically featured bold architecture ranging from factory buildings to farmhouses. Rich color was one of his trademarks.

Born in Prussia in 1867, Bluemner trained as an architect in Germany before he fled to the United States in 1892, dissatisfied with Kaiser Wilhelm II's conservative views on architecture and contemporary art. He spent two decades designing scenic country homes with colorful integrated landscapes. As an architect, he was most well-known for a 1902 design for the Bronx courthouse, but he was ultimately embroiled in a long legal battle when another architect claimed the design. He was declared the designing architect in 1906, but wasn't paid until 1911. Jaded and frustrated, he turned to painting.

Rarely were his shows financial successes, and despite support from the elite Bourgeois Gallery, Bluemner continued to live in abject poverty. He radically altered his style in a Modernist direction in 1912 after a trip to London, but still received little acclaim for his work. Even a show at the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City late in life produced few sales, and he found himself living with his son in South Braintree, Mass.

He did consider one 1935 New York show a rare success and found himself so jubilant that he wandered out in traffic in a daze and was struck by a bus. The accident left him with major medical problems and eventually bedridden. In 1938, he committed suicide by slashing his own throat — ironic because of his affinity for bright, dramatic colors.

Along with Stetson's inheritance came an unanticipated dilemma: The university did not have the space to permanently display the highly prized collection. That problem was solved, however, with the recent $1 million donation from Stetson trustee and alumna Dolly Hand and her husband, Homer. The gift allowed Stetson to begin construction on an art center that will provide a permanent space to exhibit rotating selections from the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection.

Dolly Hand, who lives in Belle Glade, says she was touched by Bluemner Kouba's gesture. "I don't think enough people know about us. This will provide another opportunity for people to learn more about Stetson, its programs and its history," she says of the first private university to be established in Florida, in 1883. Today, the school is typically noted for its affiliation with the Baptist religion.

The gallery will be fitted with an additional area to display works from the university's permanent collection or for special shows, along with a vault, a preparation area and an art study seminar room that will double as a reception area. Currently in early planning stages, the 5,000-square-foot Homer and Dolly Hand Art Center could be open by 2009. The university has applied for grants to fund the remaining balance; the gallery will cost about $2 million. Stetson's existing gallery was designed to hold small temporary exhibits such as student and faculty works. "We don't have a permanent place for the collection or a place to store them, even," says Favis. But even without a home, the collection has been a hit. Students, faculty and community members crowded a representative exhibit of the works set up before Bluemner Kouba's death.

Shortly after acquiring the collection in 2004, Stetson loaned some of the paintings to the Whitney Museum for the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the artist it had recognized almost a quarter-century before. In an essay about that exhibition, titled Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color, which closed in February 2006, the TFAO arts organization wrote: "Bluemner's works fused the expressionism of German Romanticism and German philosophical traditions with the vanguard aesthetic styles being developed in France in the early years of the century. The result was a unique union of ecstatic, emotional expressiveness with order and discipline."

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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