FORTY-ONE YEARS AGO, as a fledgling reporter on The Washington Daily News, I wrote an obituary of the artist Oscar Bluemner whom, in youthful flamboyance, I called "The Man Who Saw Red." It was not much more than a brief account of an unsuccessful painter's suicide.
The shortfall in that and in a few other obscure death notices written at the time was matched by a general indifference to him and his paintings during the last agony-filled years of his life.
Not until more than four decades after Bluemner's death has justice been done him. An exhibition of 58 of his landscapes opened in mid-November at the Hirshhorn Museum and will continue through March 2 of next year. (Reviewed in Style, Nov. 21)
Yet there is more to learn about that remarkable, restless, hag-ridden man and especially about the last picture he painted -- viewed, one hopes, only by ambulance men and coroner.No one titled it as such, but Bluemner himself must surely have thought of it as "Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Corpse."
Few of his contemporaries in the world of art remain to remember him. But in his happy days he was one of the ringleaders of the famous 1913 New York Armory show that pioneered America's awareness of modern art. Five of his pictures were included, yet -- for he was a difficult and at times cantakerous man -- he knocked the show in a review he wrote of it, and probably for the right reason: Conservative American artists were over-represented while short shrift was given by to Cezanne and Van Gogh.
In those early days, from about 1915 to 1926, Bluemner was given exhibitions at several well-esteemed galleries -- Stieglitz, Anderson, Bourgeois and Neumann -- and was himself almost a charter member of Alfred Stieglitz's "291" group. His friends included, besides the fine photographer and his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, such luminaries as Charles Demuth, John Marin and Francis Picabia.
He was known in those days as "The Vermillionaire," when color, particularly red, obsessed him.
Born in Prussia in 1867, and given to Prussian positive opinions the rest of his life, he was the son and grandson of architects and a successful one himself, winning prizes in Germany at an early age. He migrated to the United States at 26, for reasons that were obscure and never clearly illuminated by Bluemner himself, who was given to adding color to his stories as well as his canvasses. His version was that he had tangled, personally, in artistic dispute with Wilhelm II. Finding the monarch esthetically benighted and obdurate, Bluemner implied that he had no choice but to pack his bags and come to the New World. There may have been a basic of truth in the account: Kaiser Bill was known for his tampering in intellectual and artistic affairs where his taste was as gross as that of Hitler, who did the same thing.
Bluemner's early life in and around New York was hard. He made a precarious living designing houses for various real-estate companies. A persistant entrant in architectural competitions, he and his partner won the contest for the Bronx Borough Courthouse in 1902. But Tammany politics diddled him out of the prize money for 10 years, until he won a court case on his claims in 1912. Then, with a relatively handsome sum of money in his pocket, he returned to Europe for a grand tour. He called it his honeymoon -- although he left his wife behind in America.
On his return he was no longer an architect but a painter, deeply impressed by what he had seen of the impressionists and expresionists. His own orientation was somewhere between them, as a neo-impressionist.
At first his sketches were all line and form, with crayoned colors added as an afterthought. He experimented with cubism, but the more he worked the less he concerned himself with spaces and shapes. Pigment finally became everything. His paintings became warme, bolder and, mainly, reder. He gained personality and lost shape.
Red (absent all political implication, it should be said) took hold of him to the point where he attempted a metaphysical monograph on the subject, seeing in that color the "yes" that Nietzsche, who was naturally his favorite philosopher, said, must be affirmed to life.
Bluemner was recalled in those days as a flowing-haired, mustached, chunky bellower, almost overwhelmingly dynamic and energetic. He was earthy and unrestrained. His jokes, his laughter, his exploits and his accent were legendary. Agnes Ernst, a young reporter for the New York Sun, embraced by the "291" group before she became the wife of Eugene Meyer, owner of The Washington Post, recalled him as too little an artist, too much of a blow-hard.
Sometimes he had money; more often he did not. When he was without it, he did foolish things. He quarrelled with his friends, quickly made up with them and then even more quickly hurt and angered by them again. He himself was hurt by American attitudes toward him, as a German, during the national phobia of World War I. On one occasion, he was arrested as a spy: He had hung out to dry some dabs of color slapped on a paper sheet; they were assumed to be codes for German espionage agents.
Tragedy hit in 1926. Long privation and suffering brought insanity and death to his wife. There followed the dark years of Bluemner's life, but years now recognized as his most productive. He wandered up and down the Eastern seaboard, searching for the reddest town he could find in which to settle down and paint the color he adored. He picked South Braintree, Mass., where the factories of brick red, his favorite shade, made painting worthwhile. In the back yard of the small, red brick house he bought he raised beans for the sake of their scarlet blossoms.
Receipts from earlier sales kept him going. The Whitney Museum had bought three canvasses and Duncan Phillips in Washington had taken two small paintings. Finally he went on relief, in the Public Works Art Project. One of the pictures he did during the life of that institution hung for many years in a first-floor corridor of the Labor Department Building, then at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue. A large canvas, it was titled "The Roosevelt Laundry," and showed red buildings against a red background. Over one of the structures was a sign" "New Deal Laundry." We Clean the Nation's Wash." The picture is now nowhere to be found, as is presumably the case with a hundred others from the PWAP that were hung in the building, many by once-destitute artis whose pictures today command thousands of dollars. The organizer of the current Hirshhorn exhibit, Judith Zilczer, declares she went on a wild-goose chase to find "The Roosevelt Laundry," but in vain.
Popular acclaim passed Bluemner by, and with it, monetary rewards. He grew louder in his public contempt for both and worked more desperately to achieve them. His poverty became blacker, compounded by illness that followed the accident.
He painted in the late afternoon and evening, when colors were most vivid. what little money came his way went to buy Chinese red, the imperial vermillion of the Manchus. He had quantities of it in his cellar and would boast of trying to corner the market on it.
But he became referred to less frequently as "The Vermillionaire" and more often was called -- or perhaps called himself, for he was not without self-deprecating humor -- "The Vermillion Bum." He make jokes about being a Midas with a crimson touch.
Bluemner's last exhibition, a one-man show at the Marie Harriman Gallery in January 1935, revealed the full following of what he called "Compositions for Color Themes." The titles are indicative: "Radiant Night," "Bright Reds," "In Scarlet and Black," "Colors of Twilight," "Colors of Dawn," "Moonlight Fantasy," and Black,""Colors of Twilight,""Colors of Dawn,""Moonlight Fantasy," "Play of Barn Reds,""Red Green in Grey,""Red and White,""Red Sharp,""Red Flat,""Red Toward Blue," The exhibit brought enthusiastic praise but few sales.
Walking out of the gallery one day, Bluemner was struck by an auto. Recovery was long, expensive and never complete.
To the last, the Vermillionaire never questioned his Nietzchean concept of being painting's Superman. He placed fantastic prices on his pictures. For the guidance of his two children, a son and a daughter, he annotated the back of his canvasses, marking some "valuable," others "very valuable," and still others "very, very valuable."
Scarcely, a dozen of his paintings are large; most are only a few inches square. His complete collection was housed after his death in a vault 4 by 6 by 6 feet.
Semi-paralyzed, laid low by heart disease and cancer, harried by insomnia, Bluemner still tried to paint. The ultimate blow fell: His eyesight began to fail.
A few months before his death, he intimated what was coming. "I missed the single stroke that kills and ends it," he wrote Edward Bruce of the Treasury Department Procurement office, who had befriended him as he did so many other artists in his magnificent efforts to bring government sponsorship to artistic endeavor. "So now there's no life: I have no complaint except that of being around unneeded. . . . Someday I'll eat the six pounds of vermillion and stretch out like the cat. Make your exit with a nice bow, quick and short, not dragging all over the spilled scenery. . . . Hell is before, not after."
In another letter to Bruce: The idleness is a dead load. Most brushes feed the moth, the tubes ran out in the summer heat, the oils dried thick and darken. . . ."
His greatest dream, a projected series of 12 "color sonnets," could never be recorded. No more painting with oil on canvas was possible.
Only one painting was possible -- a portrait in a pigment more precious than his Chinese vermillion. On the night of Jan. 11, 1938, he placed on his dresser an envelope containing a little silver money he had somehow saved. He marked it, "for Cremation." Then he put a clean white sheet on his bed, undressed, lay down and cut his throat from ear to ear.