Saturday, April 25, 2015

New York City's Immigrant Printmaker Martin Lewis

Australian-born printmaker, Martin Lewis (1881–1962) came from Castlemaine, Victoria. As a migrant to the United States, Lewis was deeply involved in the artistic scene of New York City during the 1920s and ‘30s and he lived in the city for most of his career.
Lewis portrayed all aspects of city life including workers, buildings, and the city’s inhabitants. He liked depicting the ladies walking to and from work in their wraps and high heels. He produced prints that captured the pulse of New York City; reading as a cross-section of urban life and the sprawl of suburbia.
Lewis came from a large family of eight children and at the age of 15 he set out to start his career as an artist; traveling to New South Wales and New Zealand. He mainly did heavy manual labor jobs before he returned to Sydney and settled into a Bohemian community.
During this brief period, some of Lewis’ art was published in Sydney’s newspaper, The Bulletin, and he studied at the Art Society's School with noted Australian artist/printmaker, Julian Ashton.
In 1900, Lewis left Australia for the United States. He went to California and got a job painting stage decorations for presidential campaigner William McKinley. Then he later moved to New York, where he worked as a commercial illustrator.
1915 is the first known date of a printed image by Lewis that we find, although it seems he was already familiar with the process. During this period, he helped Edward Hopper learn printmaking and when we see their images, we can see the similarities in composition, line and movement.
In 1920, Lewis traveled to Japan where he studied Japanese art. The influence of Japanese prints was very strong in Lewis's prints, when starting in 1925, he produced a group of eighty-one etching up until 1935. (This was out of his one hundred and forty-eight known images.)
Lewis's first solo exhibition in 1929 was successful enough for him to concentrate entirely on printmaking. Lewis is most famous for his black and white prints, mostly of night scenes of New York City. During the Depression, however, he left NYC between 1932 and 1936 and moved to Newtown, Connecticut. When Lewis returned to New York City, he discovered the interest in his work had passed. He also taught at the Art Students League from 1944 to 1951. He died in 1962 in New York City in relative obscurity.
In 2011, the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, presented a highly acclaimed exhibition of Lewis’ work.
I have to say that Martin lewis' work grabbed me at first sight. It has a swing to it, and then there are images where we feel like the character he puts into the composition, where we look up at the skyscrapers of the city in awe, or look down upon the brightly lit street scenes at night.
Lewis' influence of Japanese art is strongly felt through his long diagonal lines and interesting angles of the street scenes. Whether the people of the city are heavily clad in their coats sloshing through a bitter winter scene, or barely clad in summer attire looking for a cool place to get in from the hot evening air, we feel the pulse of the city and the people that maneuver through it.
I especially enjoy how Lewis recreates the bluster of a winter snowstorm, and the steady gentle rain of spring.He understands the weather and its effects upon people in the street.
Likewise, i like how he handles groups of women going out at night together, or coming home after their work shifts. Also, the boys playing in the back of the yards neighborhood, burning their own evening fire, or the dockworkers against the New York skyline are a sight to behold for their individuality, and the stirring beauty of the city's architectural achievements at that time.
Lewis adopted New York City as his own, and his love of the city and its inhabitants is palpable. It goes to show that immigrants can entirely embrace the best and the worst of a different culture, sometimes more than the people who were born in their own country. Lewis loved the hustle and the rush of the city, and breadth of it's grandeur. We are fortunate to have rediscovered this printmaking treasure, for he has captured the essence of New York City as it was climbing in prominence, and became the mecca of the world.

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