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Bisttram's Sunlight in the Canyon

Bisttram’s Sunlight in the Canyon

During the fall of 1946, Margaret Sanger took an art class by the Modern and abstract artist Emil Bisttram for several weeks in Los Angeles. Bistram was among the first painters from Taos, New Mexico to rebel from the more traditional and studious painting styles. He was a proponent of dynamic symmetry, an art style which relies on mathematical ratios and asymmetrical compositions.

As a social activist, Sanger knew all about rebelling against traditional ideas. She had been well versed in art since her marriage to William Sanger and their years in New York City in the early 1900’s. Their friends had included known modernists and she saw the first major American exhibition of cubist and avant-garde European art at the seminal Armory Show in 1913. These classes, the culture that surrounded her, along with Sanger’s romantic relationship with the artist Hobson Pittman and her friendship with the artist and teacher Ralph Pearson, who she worked with while living in New York, kept her love for art alive. She even did some painting herself, taking a trip to Haiti in 1948, “lured by the island’s magnificent light, spectacular mountains and an artistic awakening,” in order to create her own art.

Juliet Barrett Rublee

Juliet Barrett Rublee

Not everyone was impressed by the Modern art movement. In fact, many people were disgusted by art’s major turn in stylistic form. Juliet Barrett Rublee, close friend of Margaret Sanger, was one of those people. Sanger and Rublee saw eye-to-eye on many issues, but modern art was not one of them. We might expect her to be more appreciative of Modern art, since Rublee, also a Birth Control activist, fought against traditional and conservative thought. Rublee was quite the “eccentric socialite.” She was a screenwriter and producer and was known for her work on the film “The Flame of Mexico.” She was also active in Modern dance in the 20’s and once led a diving expedition for treasure in the Mediterranean. The expedition ended in her kidnapping and being held for ransom. But when it came to Modern paintings, she wasn’t so open minded.

In letters between Rublee and Sanger, Sanger defended the paintings which she thought expressed the “universal spirituality of form.” Rublee disagreed and found the same paintings soulless and lacking in grace and beauty: “I should be looking for Beauty,” Rublee wrote to Sanger, “which touches my heart & soul & mind and inspires & gladdens me, because it is beautiful. You, if I understand you correctly, would be finding beauty in things which to me are hideous & quite lacking in any intellectual or spiritual quality.”

Sanger’s good friend did not stop there. She suggested that Sanger was confused and foolish in thinking that there was any beauty in Modern paintings, paintings which Sanger thought interesting and fascinating. Rublee wrote to Sanger:

Picasso's

Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror

For instance the picture called ‘the Mirror’ – of which you say – ‘He is expressing the whole not a part of the woman – fascinating–’ It seems to me utterly silly to say that those absurdly placed lines showing a head with no brains or back part to it, a huge leaf hanging down instead of an ear, a neck that looks like a pyramid of Egypt, a back side with part of a striped bathing suit on it, and little and big circles scattered around in her belly & breast, an arm that does not connect with the body, is much too long, & has for a hand five fingers & no thumbs – To say that all this badly drawn non-sense & meaninglessness, is ‘the whole of the woman’ is not only silly, but idiotic & certainly shows no capacity to observe what a woman is really like, in whole or in part. Whoopee–

And how about Picasso’s equally famous The Young Ladies of Avignon? Rublee thought they were “hideous creatures deformed, badly drawn, horrible: impossible to say whether they are men or women, one looks like a monkey or baboon, another looks like a monster out of a child’s nightmare.” So, perhaps Rublee didn’t quite understand what Picasso was going for. But Sanger saw something different. According to Rublee, Sanger agreed that, “These are not faces to adore” but also added that “Its all the question of Enlightenment. The men of the Renaissance were enlightened for their period & age but men’s minds of today have gone beyond their idea of form & sweetness.”

Picasso's

Picasso’s The Young Ladies of Avignon

While many see Modern paintings as nothing more than a collection of arbitrary shapes and designs, Sanger found excitement and curiosity in such distortions and a sense of rhythm in broken form. According to Sanger (quoted from Rublee): “The artist of today would be ashamed to portray the form only in color & design without probing inside the form & expressing the truth as he sees it.”


Further reading:
For more on Rublee, see here.
For more on Rublee and her relationship with Sanger see here:
For more about Sanger and Haiti see here.
For more on Bisttram see here.

*quotes from the letter “Juliet Rublee to MS, Nov. 4, 1946 [MSM S26:342]”

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