Bauer and the Spirit that Can’t Be Owned
Why would a celebrated, influential artist stop painting all of a sudden?
I remember in one of our classes, we learned about 20th century modernist avant garde abstract painters by creating a series of plates that were representative of their style. There was Mondrian, Pollock, Klee, Rothko, Picasso, and my favorite (in terms of style), Kandinsky. That was also the time I obsessed over artist’s bio-dramas. (Yes, the “tortured artist” is still a common subject for theater and film). But, it’s only recently that I learned about Bauer. Turns out, there’s a reason why I hadn’t heard about this artist, and I’m not the only one. Apart from his PBS documentary “Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolf Bauer” and Lauren Gunderson’s interpretation in the play, “Bauer”, his story was pretty much overlooked in art history because he stopped painting for thirteen years until he passed away.
Anyone who has tried to pursue a creative endeavor may at some point experience a creative rut. It can be frustrating especially after you’ve experienced a creative high. Someone once tweeted, “There should be a rehab for artists who used to be prolific, and then found themselves in a creative rut”. Yet it can happen even to the best of us. For Bauer however, it wasn’t just a lack of ideas, or a slump from a creative high that lead him to stop painting.
But it wasn’t always that way.
When Bauer, expressed to his father his desire to pursue an arts education, his father beat him so brutally, that Bauer left his family for good. Uncompromising in his dream, he was accepted in an art school, never to rely on his family’s support ever again. Years later, the run-away artist was eventually hailed as the next Kandinsky and recognized by art historians for his influence on Pollock and Willem de Kooning, while the Guggenheim Museum became home to his paintings as the main attraction. When the Third Reich sent him to a gestapo prison, labeling his work as “degenerate art”, his spirit was unfazed. Instead, he traded cigarettes for scraps of paper and pencils. After all, his art has always been an expression of his freedom.
Until one day, he signed a contract he misunderstood, intended to set him free, effectively signing away ownership to all his work, including future works. This drove a wedge between him and the woman he once loved.
In “Bauer”, Louise, Bauer’s wife and former maid, invited his aristocratic ex-girlfriend and once trusted curator, Hilla Rebay. Louise didn’t want to watch Bauer die feeling like he was a shadow. At the very least, she hoped Hilla could give him closure. Together, the two very different women try their best to revive the spirit of the brooding artist.
“Bauer” won Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and became a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist. It was directed by Bill English, and produced by San Francisco Playhouse in 2014. “Bauer” is a one act play set in the artist’s studio, in New Jersey. Animations of his art are occasionally projected on the walls. Visually, the scenes are just as arresting as the gravity of the characters’ lines.
Indeed, Gunderson is known for the strong female characters she writes. By paying close attention to the character development, we can reflect on our own relationships. Are we like Rebay, who though she had good intentions, ended up being the one others found controlling? Are we like Bauer who was needy? Or are we like Louise who was supportive? At the beginning of the play, Rebay is antagonized, but as the dialogue progresses, she undermines Bauer’s claims to a moral high round in refusing not to paint. Bauer’s neediness however is much more complicated as we see the extent to which he felt betrayed. All the while, submissive doesn’t mean passive for Louise as she persists on both parties to reconcile though she does not trust Rebay after she broke Bauer’s heart. Though she herself has never been part of the art world, she knows enough to have the conviction to believe in her husband’s vision and say, “Art should make us better. Isn’t that why we bother with it?” It is eventually Rebay who offers Bauer consolation by asking for forgiveness and offering the same, though it isn’t the easy kind that he would have wished for.
“Stop comparing your life to the one you thought you’d have… You loved me most? I hurt you most? Bauer, the spirit doesn’t care.” — Rebay
A short version of the play is available at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAt5Xipuraw&t
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute. (2014). Rudolf Bauer in Berlin in the 1930s [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/theater/bauer-recalls-key-figures-in-the-guggenheims-creation.html
Bauer. (2015). [Image]. Retrieved from http://www.abouttheartists.com/productions/80865-bauer-at-san-francisco-playhouse-september-2-october-12-2014
Rosegg, C. (2014). Bauer [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/10/theater/a-bio-play-on-the-painter-rudolf-bauer-at-59e59-theaters.html