Winold Reiss had been more or less an obscure figure within the canon of modern European and American art and art education until recent scholarship illuminated his outside the box aesthetic and pedagogical contributions. A new book, an exhibition and extensive media coverage in arts publications is making Reiss a more common name in modernist discourse.
Although Reiss was a white German painter and graphic artist, his fine artworks and commercial illustrations are astute and humble representations of the Black and Indigenous American subjects he frequently depicted. Unlike other non-Black and non-Indigenous artists of his era, Reiss honed in on the essence of the individuals in his portraits, which are indicative of multicultural narratives that are missing from many accounts of the modernist era.
There are no cliché traits or folksy exaggerations in his paintings such as the intimate portraits he created after his initial visit to the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Writer and anthropology scholar Joanne B. Mulcahy (2020) explains that Reiss embraced a distinct perspective of multiculturalism and intersectional understandings of race, ethnicity and body image, and that “he abandoned harmful stereotypes of Indigenous people; his portraits depicted individuals who wore western suits as well as traditional dress.”
Reiss’ paintings and drawings of Harlem residents included both renowned civil rights leaders and unsung social reformers like local teachers. Instead of rendering them from the lens of an outsider, he was committed to portraying and advocating their achievements and cultural prowess. One example is the portrait he made of Harlem educational reformer, Elise J. McDougald who became the first African-American woman principal in New York City public schools during the late nineteenth century. McDougald was a compassionate early childhood educator who also was active in social activist initiatives both within New York City’s school system and her Harlem neighborhood. She was a supporter of developing egalitarian educational experiences by focusing on a multidisciplinary student-centered curricula and combining Deweyian and Reggio Emilia frameworks like experiential learning, self-directed and projects and a collaborative classroom culture that would support students’ understandings of democratic living. McDougald’s intellectual, sensitive, and powerful characteristics are clearly represented within the portrait that Reiss drew of McDougald. Her facial features are realistically rendered, while the rest of her body is abstracted through a simple contour line drawing. This juxtaposition accentuates her poised and critical gaze. We get the sense that McDougald is a strong and thoughtful individual via this stylistic treatment.
Reiss made significant connections with the Blackfeet and Harlem communities that he maintained throughout the course of his life. His approach to celebrating and depicting diversity carried over into his teaching methods. In the early half of the second decade of the twentieth century, he established his own art schools in Manhattan (in his Greenwich Village studio), Woodstock (during the summer) and nearby the Blackfeet Nation, which diverged from the status quo of higher art education by being accessible and welcoming to a multicultural and intersectional student body.
In the recently published book, The Multicultural Modernism of Winold Reiss (1886-1953): (Trans) National Approaches to His Work, one of the contributing authors Julie Levin Caro provides a vision of the unique environment he fostered in his studio art classes. She utilizes archival materials including photographs of his Greenwich Village studio and primary sources of his student’s recollections in order to piece together the framework of Reiss’ teaching style and his promotion of an inclusive and collaborative cultural community. Former students described his Greenwich Village studio where he taught as a thriving hotbed of multicultural interactivity. There was a strong representation of different races, genders and ethnicities among his students and artistic colleagues who frequented the artist’s studio for classes, parties and critiques. One student recounted that the acclaimed concert artist Paul Robeson performed during one of their classes. The most profound and influential element of Reiss’ teaching was that he went against the grain of the traditional art schools of his era by desegregating his classes and opening up. For example, in established and accredited art schools it was previously unheard of for a plurality of men and women of different cultural and racial background to study the figure and paint live nude models together.
Reiss welcomed and facilitated this kind of diversity. He also made sure that any potential student who wanted to study with him would have equitable access to do so. At his summer school in Glacier Park, Montana students could pay to attend and receive college credit through New York University, but he waived all tuition costs for Blackfeet students and made sure that his classes were a diverse mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike. The goal was for students to learn from each other’s personal and cultural experiences in conjunction with gaining and refining their artistic skills. Some former Blackfeet students such as Albert Racine, Isabelle McKay, Stanley Croff and Victor Pepion went on to become established figures in the art world.
One of Reiss’ most notable alumni from his New York school is Aaron Douglas, a highly accomplished painter who became prominent during the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas came to New York City in 1925 with the intent to go on to study modernist art in Paris, France but was convinced to stay in Harlem by several of his contemporaries and older mentors. Reiss was one of the individuals that influenced Douglas’ decision as well as his focus on painting scenes from both contemporary and historical Black culture. He encouraged him to look at his own Black ancestry and rich cultural heritage for aesthetic and contextual inspiration rather than simulating the European modernist tradition. Douglas’ mature work reflects his mentor’s prompt through its seamless blend of traditional African art such as the ancient Nubian and Egyptians’ use of representational perspective and symbolic form with avant-garde styles like Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Cubism. Reiss provided Douglas with a two year tuition free scholarship at his Manhattan art school, while also introducing his work to Alain Locke, the author of the essential 1925 anthology of Black art, The New Negro. Locke featured both Reiss and Douglas’ illustrations in the first edition of the publication.
Reiss’ work both as an individual artist painting multicultural themes; an educator who opened his classroom to a spectrum of identities and collaborator who promoted work by Black and Indigenous artists, is a story that is often untold in modernist art history. This makes The Multicultural Modernism of Winold Reiss (1886-1953): (Trans) National Approaches to His Work an essential read and provides an optimistic outlook about the entire modern art canon being revisited and reevaluated in a more diverse and less doctrinaire manner.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Mehring, Frank (ed.) et al (2022). The Multicultural Modernism of Winold Reiss (1886-1953): (Trans) National Approaches to His Work, Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag.
Mulchay, Joanne B. “The German Modernist Who Painted a Multicultural United States.” Hyperallergic, 25 August 2022. https://hyperallergic.com/753538/winold-reiss-german-modernist-who-painted-a-multicultural-united-states/
Weber, Jeremy. “Art exhibit returns Winold Reiss portraits to the Blackfeet Reservation,” Daily Inter Lake, 19 June 2022. https://dailyinterlake.com/news/2022/jun/19/art-exhibit-returns-winold-reiss-portraits-blackfe/