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Documentary explores career of enigmatic artist Albert Bloch

Monday, September 16, 2019

LAWRENCE — Albert Bloch’s “Frieze for a Music Room” hangs imposingly in the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art. The 1915 painting created by this former chair of the university’s art department depicts groups of clowns reveling and performing music – a fine representation of the artist’s early work that strove to “see sound or hear color.”

But those unable to visit the museum will now have the chance to observe a trove of Bloch’s work and learn the impetus behind it, thanks to a new documentary on the subject.

“AB” screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at the Lawrence Arts Center. Directed by KU film alumnus Tim DePaepe, the picture is co-produced by Kelly Chong, KU professor of sociology.

“I’ve always been a great fan of expressionist painting, and I myself have dabbled in painting and drawing all my life,” Chong said. “In 2015, I got acquainted with the director and learned more about Albert Bloch. The more I found out about him, the more intrigued I became.”

Chong explains there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding the Midwestern artist.

“Many thought he was just a professor at KU who didn’t really contribute to modern art very much. I don’t think people actually know his significance. And while this project doesn’t answer all those questions, it offers a beginning of exploration into the man’s legacy,” she said.

Born in St. Louis in 1882, Bloch rose to prominence as part of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a pioneering German Expressionist art movement. From 1911 to 1914, the Munich-based collective – which included Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Paul Klee and Gabriele Münter, among others – shared a mutual goal of expressing the spiritual regeneration of Western society through their work.

“Bloch was the one who really pursued the ideals of expressionism and Blue Rider until its end,” Chong said. “Whereas Kandinsky went more toward abstractionism, Bloch is the one who actually practiced it. He didn’t care about becoming commercially successful. In fact, he kind of disdained it.”

In 1922, Bloch permanently relocated to Lawrence to be a professor in KU’s department of drawing and painting, where he served until retiring in 1947. He died in 1961.

Flash forward to 1996, when DePaepe was approached by Scott Bloch, grandson of Albert Bloch, to craft a documentary. Filming began earnestly, with numerous interviews of contemporaries and experts. Most importantly, they captured conversations with Anna Bloch, the artist’s elderly widow and longtime champion of his legacy.

“Anna had all those paintings and everything hidden from public view for years. She just sort of kept it in the attic, and I think she was selling them off a little by little,” Chong said.

But despite such access, the cinematic project stalled for nearly a decade. Then Anna died in 2014 at the age of 101.

Chong came onboard to help jump-start the endeavor. She immediately sought to expand the scope beyond the KU/Lawrence circle, securing interviews with eminent national scholars and art historians.

Meanwhile, the project encountered a common snag that hindered it for years: money. Fortunately, eventual grants from Mid-America Arts Alliance and ArtsKC, along with a successful Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign, raised enough funds to send the crew to Chicago and New York for additional interviews, as well as cover post-production costs.

The filmmakers were also able to recruit another key contributor. Kansas City native Holmes Osborne, a veteran character actor with almost 100 credits in film and television (“Donnie Darko” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” among them), provided his indelible voice.

“We made a conscious decision not to use a narrator so the story can be told from Albert Bloch’s perspective,” Chong said.

That voice includes Osborne delivering Bloch’s own words.

“This is a very kind of distinctive documentary because not only do we have the audience experience the painting visually, but also through poetry. And what’s great about Bloch is he’s not just a painter, he’s a really accomplished poet,” she said.

The hourlong documentary is composed of an eight-part structure that deconstructs much of the artist’s approach and ideals.

David Cateforis, chair of KU’s Kress Foundation Department of Art History, said he’s most impressed by Bloch’s later art from the 1930s through 1950s.

“Working in relative isolation in Lawrence, he developed a highly personal artistic style of great expressive intensity in drawing, watercolor and oil painting. Although he was inspired by his study of older art and by his observation of the world around him, he did not seek to reproduce what he saw. Bloch worked from memory and imagination,” Cateforis said.

The professor consulted with the filmmakers at various points during production and appears on camera giving gallery talks and individual interviews in the final cut.

Cateforis emphasizes that Bloch described his paintings in spiritual terms. Even depictions of everyday subjects such as flowers, houses and landscapes appear to have been transformed by the artist’s fantasy and “elevated from the mundane to the extraordinary.”

The majority know about works from Bloch’s Munich period, which are sought after by museums and private collectors – a 1912 work titled “Duell (Duel)” sold at auction last year for more than $1 million. However, his later pieces remain largely underappreciated.

“How can we rate an artist if we don’t see his work?” Cateforis said. “Bloch’s later art – arguably his most original – is underexposed.”

Chong said the most surprising revelation she had while making the documentary involved Bloch’s later work.

“I still don’t understand the second half,” she said. “The way we started out this project was trying to answer questions like, ‘What is this person about? Why did he leave the pursuit of possible fame? Why did he come here and bury himself in Lawrence, Kansas?’ But we also wondered, ‘What is the meaning of his latter half? Why did he change so much and become so inward?’”

Chong has taught at KU since 2005. This semester, she became chair of the sociology department.

The New York City native studies gender, immigration, religion, race and ethnicity. She’s also a big movie fan.

“The fact that I love films in general, and documentary films in particular — and so use documentary films as an important part of my classroom pedagogy — was a major part of my motivation in getting involved in this project,” said Chong, who’s busy with plans to get the film distributed on TV.

“I’m an ethnographer and interviewer by training in my written scholarship, but I appreciated being able to experience telling a story through the medium of film.”

Top image: Albert Bloch in his Munich studio: 1911.

Top right image: Albert Bloch in his Lawrence studio: 1932.