Jacob Landau: Old Man Mad About Drawing

Printed Image Gallery (February 1996) 

Brandywine Workshop
Printed Image Gallery

From the vantage point of his eighties, the Japanese printmaker Hokusai once described himself as "an old man mad about drawing." A century and a half later, the 78-year-old Jacob Landau finds this image of age, passion, and creativity, a compelling self-description. As he looks ahead to his eighties, savoring the prerogative of age, Landau looks back across seven decades of being "mad about drawing."

Jacob Landau started drawing at the age of three, working on pieces of shirt cardboard. He recalls that he tried to draw everything he saw. The visual world intrigued him and he soon found he had a natural ability for rendering, as he translated three dimensional objects into a language of lines. When he was 12, he began to study life drawing and etching at the Graphic Sketch Club (today the Samuel Fleisher Memorial). His mentor there was Earle Horter, who later honored his pupil with the gift of a treasured set of Goya's Capriccios.

The young artist took full advantage of Philadelphia as a source of inspiration, roaming the city to sketch, for example, trees in Fairmount Park and animals in the zoo. One of his favorite places in the Park was the Centennial building, where a diorama of the destruction of Pompeii imparted a vivid impression of a world doomed by forces beyond human control. As a student at Overbrook High School, the well-read teenager turned to illustration. In 1934, when he was a high school junior, Landau won five prizes in the Scholastic Magazine competition for illustrations of Kipling's Jungle Book. The young artist found inspiration in such disparate examples of creativity as Beethoven and the Mexican muralist Orozco. He later made pilgrimages to Pomona, California and to Dartmouth College to see examples of Jose Clemente Orozco's grandly scaled public commissions.

Landau was a scholarship student at the Museum School of Industrial Art (today the University of the Arts) from 1935 to '38. He studied illustration with Henry Pitz, painting with Franklin Watkins, and printmaking with Benton Spruance. Watkins's controversial painting, Suicide in Costume, which was awarded First Prize at the 1931 Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh, was a source of inspiration for the young artist, who saw in it a model of artistic integrity. Landau likes to recall Watkins's advice to his classes: "You paint what you know. I want you to paint what you don't know."

The present exhibition, Old Man Mad About Drawing, Jacob Landau, Works on Paper, 1934-95, documents the artist's abiding love of drawing. To Landau, it is "the heart of the artistic endeavor, the hand moving and reacting to the soul." The earliest drawing included, an illustration for Kipling done when Landau was seventeen, demonstrates the virtuoso skills that were at his command from the onset. His youthful and ardent political views are visible in (Figure 1) Liberty Crucified 1937, done to fulfill an assignment at the Museum School.

As he grew to manhood during the Great Depression, Landau's passion for social justice and his expanding awareness of life's inequities led him, for example, to address the labor movement in several works. The tempera studies for Strike, and the oil on paper maquette for the no longer existing mural The Story of Labor, done c.1940, reveal his fervor for the rights of workers. His prototypes here were not the doctrinaire images of muscle-bound workers by such overtly political artists as Hugo Gellert, but those of Robert Gwathmey and Philip Evergood who were interested in the subject of the working classes, but not in a stereotypical fashion.

In the late thirties and early forties, New York was a crossroads of leftist culture, bringing together artists who were passionate about the labor movement and politics in general. Landau was one of the founders of the Youth Workshop in 1939, which counted as members puppeteers, musicians, actors, and such graphic artists as Leonard Baskin and Antonio Frasconi. They were united by the common goal of bringing art to the "people." Ever short of funds, the Workshop would host monthly "rent parties," where such talented young people as Zero Mostel, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Canada Lee, and Leadbelly would offer entertainment.

In 1946, many of the graphic artists who were members of the Youth Workshop formed a more specialized group called the New York Graphic Workshop, in which Landau also participated. One of the print portfolios they published, entitled "Negro" consisted of work by African American artists. Landau contributed one print and designed the cover for another collection of prints called "The People, Yes" which took its name from the Carl Sandbur g book. One of Landau's fellow activists from those days was the young African American artist Charles White. Landau recalls that once, when White was diagnosed with TB, he accompanied him for a recuperative stay at an isolated upstate cabin donated by Rockwell Kent.

Landau was also active in the earlier Victory Workshop of the Artists League of America, formed after the United States entered the Second World War. The principal activity of this collective was the presentation of a large art exhibition, Art, a Weapon for Total War, which was hung at the New School for Social Research in the early spring of 1943. A co-chair of the Workshop, Landau served as one of the organizers of the show, which included such artists as Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Robert Sloan, and Jean Carlu.

In 1943, Landau was drafted into the armed forces and spent two years overseas in the Mediterranean Theater. The subsequent GI. Bill was a boon to Landau, who furthered his academic education both at home and abroad. At New York's New School, he studied with such pbwerhouses as Erich Fromm, Rudolf Arnheim, and Eugene O'Neill Jr. At this time, he worked in a "cold water" studio on Tenth Street and supported himself by illustrating children's books, advertisements, and such comics as Captain America.

From 1949 to 1952, the artist, his wife, and young son lived in Paris, where he studied art at the Academies Julian and de la Grande Chaumiere. When the printmaker Leonard Baskin was an extended houseguest in their home in Paris, Landau was introduced to the medium of woodcut by the visitor. Baskin shared with Landau his great admiration for Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, which the artist then traveled to Colmar to see. It became an abiding visual resource. During his time in Paris, Landau developed a close friendship with the composer Darius Milhaud and his family. Others in his Paris circle included the photographer Paul Strand, the poet Claude Roy, and the architect Paul Nelson.

By the time Landau returned to the United States, his own artistic vision had clarified. The artist described his principal stylistic preoccupations at that stage as "romantic, figurative, eclectic, [and] increasingly influenced by the northern European tradition of drawing as the foundation of painting." His study of the northern European tradition exposed him to expressions of the tragic pain of human existence. From such heroes as Blake, Goya, and Durer, the artist gleaned a passion for life, which reinforced his own longstanding delight in delineating things of the real world. He defined himself as "consciously anti-modernist," and chose instead to identify with the movement for "romantic and spiritual humanism."

Today the artist regrets that earlier in his career he described himself as a humanist. To Landau, the humanist hierarchy places people above nature. Moreover, humanists are optimists. He now has a keener sense of the futility of human endeavor. Yet, he is not a pessimist. He retains the hope that people will one day "wise up." Landau is fond of quoting Margaret Chase Smith, who when asked if she were an optimist or pessimist, identified herself as the former. When asked to describe the difference between the two, she replied, "The pessimist is usually better informed."

Whether optimistic or not, Jacob Landau has remained committed to the delineation of the human body. For Landau, the figure is "capable of expressing everything that humans beings are and hope to become. It is paradigmatic of the human condition -- all things are contained in it, every emotion, trait, and fate can be conveyed through the body." In 1945, he had met survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. His depictions of both whole and fragmented human forms reflect the lasting effect of this encounter.

Reaching artistic maturity as an artist, Landau's vision of man's struggle became less specifically political. (Figure 2) Sisyphus, 1961, his large charcoal drawing in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, exemplifies the shift in his work that followed his return to the United States after living abroad in the early fifties. Sisyphus, the founder and king of Corinth, was avaricious and fraudulent in his dealings. In the underworld he was condemned to eternal labor, rolling a block of stone to the top of a steep hill. His burden always plummeted back down again just before he reached the summit. In Landau's rendering, there are many Sisyphuses. Two are weighted down with human cargos, an elderly man and woman respectively. One of these extends his arms in a cruciform position, an anguished expression on his face.

The forty-four year old Landau had his first solo show in New York at the Cober Gallery, from which The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) purchased a large watercolor, Cinna the Poet, 1959. He was then included in MoMA's landmark juried show, "Recent Painting USA: The Figure" in 1962. His was among the 74 chosen works from nearly 9,500 entries. His former student, the young Sidney Goodman was included, as were Larry Rivers, Lester Johnson, Ben Kamahira, and Elaine de Kooning.

Landau derived the ideas embodied in Cinna the Poet from a Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Orson Welles had dressed the legions in Nazi uniforms. In one scene, Marc Anthony gave a speech that won over the crowd, who then set out to punish the conspirator Cinna. When, by chance, the blood thirsty mob came upon an unrelated man, Cinna the Poet, they murdered him anyway, such was their rage for retribution. When theirvictim pleaded: "I'm not Cinnathe Conspirator, I'm Cinna the Poet," they shouted back, " Let's tear him to pieces for his bad verses." Landau's central image of mindless brutality was a batwielding man clad in hat and coat, surrounded by a red-tinged assembly of men and women.

By 1962, Abstract Expressionism had been the dominant mode of American art for over a decade, and the existence of a major exhibition of figurative art at the Museum of Modern Art was national news. Time magazine ran a well-illustrated story on "the reappearing figure" and included a reproduction of Landau's Cinna the Poet. In the accompanying text, Landau's approach was contrasted with that of artists who "use the figure as just another object orform." Indeed, the writer noted, Landau "is brave enough to admit being concerned with "the condition of man."

As the decade of the sixties progressed, Landau grew disillusioned with the grand heroic scale and content of his earlier art. Inspired by the model of Bertolt Brecht's angry satire, he shifted his focus to visual descriptions of man's "inhumanity, hypocrisy, and loss of integrity." Landau explored an expressionist style, and developed more spontaneous ways of working. (Figure 3) Armored Man and Night People are two examples of this change. The Man Who Laughs was triggered by a statement by Brecht that "The man who laughs has not yet been told the terrible news." This drawing was reproduced on the cover of the October 1969 Ramparts Magazine. Every one of the twelve images in this unique issue was by Landau. A new interest in the surreal is evident in many of them. As the Ramparts editor note "[They] were not commissioned to illustrate specific articles. Rather they are recent major statements by a literate and concerned artist which parallel in a special way the contents of this magazine." Another of Landau's works included was Burn Blood Brother, manifestation of his solidarity with the growing struggle for Black Liberation.

In the seventies, Landau continued to use surrealist distortions to express his ideas. He modified the more spontaneous processes he had explored in the sixties. The new work struck a balance between freedom and control. The New Jerusalem, a pencil drawing of 1976, exemplifies this new style.

Since the 1950s, Landau was involved with teaching art. He served on the faculty of the Philadelphia College of Art from 1954 to 57, and taught at Pratt Institute from 1957 to 1980. In 1975 he became a faculty member of The Artist Teacher Institute, an intensive 10 day summer residency program sponsored by New Jersey State Council on the Arts. For the past twenty years, he has worked on honing and developing the interdisciplinary program of the Institute. Landau regards his work here as a continuation of the ecumenical approach to the arts that characterized his earlier involvement in the Youth Workshop.

During the eighties, the artist completed several major drawing series. The serial format holds particular interest for Landau -- it allows him to slowly tell a story, and to deliver complex ideas in sequential form. He has always been attracted to the bible as a source of narrative. Biblical archetypes provide him with both literal subject and covert content. One subject that had long fascinated the artist was that of the Book of Revelation. Landau was sobered and chilled by the fact that to certain reactionary thinkers, nuclear war would not be viewed as a tragedy, but would be welcomed as a sign from God to hasten the Second Coming. From 1986 to 88, Landau embarked on his Revelation cycle of ten images, as a strong protest against such orthodox interpretations. To backup his own conception, he undertook extensive research to investigate alternative explications of the Revelation.

During this time, he worked on several other series. Identifying with his namesake in the Jacob story, Landau executed a sixpart cycle of drawings entitled (Figure 4) Climbing Jacob's Ladder between 1987 and 1990. To Landau, Jacob was a witness, a man transformed by his experience of wrestling with the angel. In the artist's interpretation, the mysterious personage of the angel is an aspect of Jacob himself.

One of Landau's friends and neighbors in his town of Roosevelt, New Jersey is the poet David Sten Herrstrom. After reading Herrstrom's poem "Jonah's Disappearance," the artist .responded by executing a suite of 12 drawings. These were not illustrations of the text but a parallel effort inspired by the subject matter of the poems and by the biblical text. Ultimately, Landau did 12 more drawings about Jesus and Lazarus, who share with Jonah the experience of having died and come back to life. A selection of 12 of Landau's drawings was included in Herrstrom's 1992 book of poems entitled Appearing By Daylight.

One of the magical aspects of art is its ability to transform the unique and the personal into universal expressions of human experience. Landau's ongoing (Figure 5, 6) Frances Cycle is a case in point. When his beloved wife Frances finally succumbed to Alzheimer's disease in January 1995, she had been ill for over a decade. Those afflicted characteristically lose their use of language. But before speech is finally severed, the sufferer is able to communicate in repeated phrases, distilled and intense pronouncements that may be both cryptic and poignant. Landau kept track of Frances's special sentences, and in 1993 began making drawings inspired by her words.

To illustrate I Can't Understand My Own Self the artist limited the images to two constricted and overlapping corridors of space. In one, a woman sprawls out horizontally, seemingly asleep. A vertical knot of three menacing and tormenting females seems to rise up from between her own legs. In I Want to Go Home, body fragments float up and away from a recumbent woman. Hands resembling wings evoke medieval representations of exorcism, or that of a heaven-bound soul taking leave of the body. Landau's compassion and empathy with his wife's plight is evident throughout.

Walter Kauffman, the philosopher of Existentialism, once describe Landau's art as "unmistakably modern an at the sametime in the tradition of Goya and Blake." Like the Roman god Janus, who was depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, there is a duality to Jacob Landau. Glancing back, he is part of a continuum with the old masters; peering ahead, he faces the uncertain future as an artist with contemporary eye.

In January 1996, we are poised in the threshold of a new century. It seems pertinent again to invoke Janus. For the Romans, he was the god of good beginnings who presided over bridges, gates and portals. The month of January is named in his honor. Surveying this retrospective, Jacob Landau, can look back at his accomplishments, and as a man "mad about drawing," he can look ahead, knowing that there still so much work to be done.

Judith E. Stein, Ph.D.
January 5, 1996