Mabel Hewit woodblock prints celebrated at Cleveland Museum of Art
Concise. Classy. Consistent.
Those are some of the adjectives that apply to the color woodcuts of the long-overlooked Cleveland artist Mabel Hewit, whose work is the subject of a delightful summer/fall exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Born in Conneaut in 1903 and raised in Youngstown, Hewit, who died in 1984, spent the last 50 years of her life in Cleveland and Parma, where she produced dozens of colorful prints redolent of small-town and city life during the Great Depression and the decades that followed.
The museum's exhibition, which inaugurates the museum's new prints and drawings galleries in the lower level of the renovated 1916 building, includes textiles, sketchbooks and lithographs.
But the vast majority of the works on view are woodblock prints depicting factories, modest neighborhoods filled with gable-roofed houses, sandwich men, a newsboy hawking a newspaper, boys playing baseball and women sunning themselves at the beach.
All these subjects and more are treated with a kind of gentle modernism based on white-line woodcut technique, in which the artist cuts a groove around each section of a woodblock, inks the sections separately, and prints the resulting image.
In every case, Hewit depicted her subjects in a generalized, quasi-abstract manner as arrangements of flat, colored shapes on a two-dimensional surface, itself a very modernist idea.
Aside from the luminous chromatic effects she achieved, the big surprise and true pleasure of Hewit's work derive from the compressed cleverness of her compositions. She squeezed a lot of action into her small-format images.
Boys playing baseball in "The Ball Game" (1934) are depicted in a telescopic manner from the viewpoint of second base, squeezing pitcher, batter and catcher all together in a tight, lively composition.
"Summer Chess," from 1946, portrays a seated couple outside a cabin with an outdoor stairwell that slices across the image in a dramatic diagonal. "Janitzio" (1954) depicts an island in a mountain lake in Mexico in a way that says earthly paradise with extreme economy.
A solitary linocut print in the show, a self-portrait showing the artist's face in profile, imparts a sense of intelligent alertness with a few simple lines.
Hewit's work feels French in its origins, in part because it echoes the "cloisonnism" of Paul Gauguin, who, inspired by medieval French enamels, created a style in which areas of flat color were separated by dark outlines.
Hewit's style also shows strong influences from Japanese "ukiyo-e" woodblock prints from the early 19th century, along with intimations of Cubism, Art Deco and American Precisionism.
The effects, at times, bring to mind the luminous, quasi-abstract paintings of American painter Milton Avery.
The show and catalog say little about Hewit as a person, although the basics are there: She graduated from South High School in Youngstown in 1921 and worked as a stenographer before earning a bachelor's degree in education from Ohio State University in 1926.
Hewit taught in public schools in Detroit and Youngstown and completed her master's degree in education at Teachers College at Columbia University in 1932.
In 1934, Hewit moved to Cleveland and lived there or in Parma for the rest of her life with her sister, Ednah Jurey, a certified public accountant and weaver.
Hewit took numerous art classes, including 16 summers of lessons at the Summer School of Painting at Saugatuck, about an hour southwest of Grand Rapids near the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Most important, however, may have been lessons Hewit learned from West Virginia native Blanche Lazzell, a leading practitioner of white-line woodcut technique, who gave instruction in her studio in Provincetown, Mass., during the 1930s.
The exhibition's catalog, which presents original research by Jane Glaubinger, the show's organizer and curator of prints, states that Hewit must have studied with Lazzell in 1929, when she visited Cape Cod to attend a class in outdoor painting sponsored by Teachers College, or in the summer of 1933.
Judging from a 1934 color woodcut, in which Hewit closely emulated a similar work by Lazzell, the latter's influence was profound and lasting.
Interestingly, according to an article by Glaubinger in the Cleveland museum's members' magazine, Lazzell once defined Cubism as the "organization of flat planes of color, with an interplay of space, instead of perspective."
The statement closely parallels that of the French Post-Impressionist painter Maurice Denis, who said in 1890 that a picture, before it is anything else, "is an arrangement of colored shapes." Such thoughts hint strongly at the lineage of Hewit's art.
Despite such highfalutin' roots, Hewit saw her mission as that of making affordable art.
"I like block printing," she once explained, "because it gives the family of moderate means an opportunity to have something of color and art in their homes."
Hewit is attracting fresh attention thanks to the gradual donation of a large body of her work to the museum by her nephew, William Jurey, and his wife, Rose, who starting giving prints and other examples to the museum in 2003.
The exhibition and the accompanying catalog are one outcome of those gifts, which have opened a fresh and intriguing perspective on the course of modern art and ideas in Cleveland.