Photo: Old Men and the Sea-In pieces such as "Sardine Barge," Monterey painter Armin Hansen gave brooding, masculine treatment to one of his favorite subjects, fishermen.
For students of local art history and California art, an exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art''s La Mirada facility should not be missed. "Restless Seas: Works by Armin Hansen" commemorates the consecutive anniversaries of the 1992 Jane and Justin Dart gift of an impressive cache of Hansen paintings and etchings and the 1993 opening of the Jane and Justin Dart Wing at La Mirada. With such a collection to see at once, the question arises, do Hansen''s mythic men and the sea, so rooted in 19th century sensibilities, speak to or represent mid-20th century realities and artistic concerns?
Armin Hansen (1886-1957) received his first art instruction from his father, the noted painter of Western motifs, Herman Wendelborg Hansen, and then enrolled at the California School of Design at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco. The major influence there was Arthur Mathews, whose style, known as the California Decorative Style, featured simplified forms and tonalist color. The young Hansen eventually went on to the Royal Academy of Art in Stuttgart, where he worked with Carlos Grethe, an artist who favored marine themes.
It was this formal technical training that would serve as the steel underpinning to his art for the rest of his life; it was his attraction to the sea, pursued firsthand as a seaman on various fishing boats during his four years in Europe, that would provide the impetus for his most engaging painting.
Hansen''s paintings from these years, circa 1910, reveal a mostly brown palette, skilled draughtsmanship and paint application, and conventional compositions. The rare painting with a high color key belies the student experimenter. For the most part, however, Hansen was drawn to the theme of men and the sea, with all its concomitant literary ideas, rather than the formalist avant-garde movements such as pointillism, flashing its beacon for 20 years, or cubism, building up steam in Paris. The freedom of color and brush work, a fauvist legacy especially embraced by the Germans, seems the only modernist element that fit his personality.
When he returned to San Francisco in 1912, Hansen set up a studio, but in short order discovered Monterey, with its fishermen and picturesque scenery, and began visiting regularly; he eventually settled here in 1918.
Hansen, an affable bear of a man, became a teacher in addition to pursuing his painting; his kind manner and inspirational example made him a focal point for the local scene. According to local art historian Kent Seavey, he "was an arbiter of taste when conflicts arose between the more traditional artists and the modern artists. People listened to him."
"Salmon Trawlers," painted in 1918, illustrates the best qualities of a Hansen painting. Hansen depicted the sea as an awesome force by interpreting waves as mountain ranges of blues and greens swelling and crashing into each other; the fishermen in their noble little boats are invariably key players in the drama, rugged shapes toiling with and against the odds.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Hansen made masterful etchings that, according to art dealer Terry Trotter, earned Hansen the sobriquet ''the Rembrandt of the West.''" As in Rembrandt, Hansen''s crosshatched lines coalesce into forms-men, boats, piers, horses-then trail off into the ground to suggest background elements. The wear and tear of the sea is seen in his caricatured faces and slouching figures; the light on water and waves is suggested with the most economic use of line and empty space.
European modernism spread to the West Coast via the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, American artists'' forays to France, and by West Coast galleries carrying some modernist works, but Hansen remained unaffected by the likes of cubism, surrealism, dada and the social realism that became the American vernacular during the Great Depression. "The Homer of the West," another label Hansen acquired, concentrated on the fishermen and the sea. While 11,000 of 24,000 banks failed in 1929, and millions of Americans were out of work, Hansen returned again and again to his favorite subject, or its landlubberly counterpart, the rodeo: masculine subjects expressed in his masculine technique, devoid of sociopolitical commentary. While the memory of the Great War dimmed with the build-up to another cataclysm, Hansen painted his stoic fishermen in the broad strokes of his youth.
Geographically, culturally, Monterey, California was separated and insulated from the world. California artists had modernist information, but instead of kowtowing to the high priests in Europe, they forged individualistic styles by taking only those modernist elements that worked for them. If there is a West Coast style, it''s the freedom of choice manifested in painting that throws together a little Monet, a dash of Cezanne, some Van Gogh and a measure of Matisse, underscored by a subjective connection to the land, or, in Hansen''s case, the sea.
Armin Hansen''s "Restless Seas," constituting a separate world where sturdy men and potent natural forces meet, addresses the realities of mid-20th century because of the mythic story depicted or implied; his work is about the human condition. It is an American vision rooted in the vast lands, the raw coastlines, and the rugged individualism that American culture nurtures. Hansen''s achievement resonates because of, not in spite of, his residence in Monterey. The evidence is at La Mirada.