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Art in Focus: 'The Flying Trapeze' by Abraham Rattner

Abraham Rattner is a case study in determining the difference between good — very, very good — and great. • Having talent, drive and opportunity can make a person successful, but it can't confer greatness. Popularity during an artist's career isn't an indicator either. Time can be a friend or an enemy to one's legacy. • One can argue that Rattner's relegation to a lower tier in the hierarchy of art history happened because he had such formidable competition. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were the big guns of his era. But every era has masters like them. Greatness happens when an artist not only smashes through conventions but also creates new ones. • Rattner, like so many others, became, in the end, a follower. That opinion doesn't negate the fine body of work he left behind. Its importance is in giving us a clearer picture of all the currents being explored in the early and mid 20th century and the different ways artists took them all and made them into art that defined its time. Only a very few in any period are able to make art that also transcends.

Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

The Artist

Abraham Rattner (1893-1978) grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the son of Russian Jews who came to the United States before he was born. He studied architecture at George Washington University but followed his heart into painting, attending two prestigious institutions, the Corcoran School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Rattner enlisted in the Army and was sent to Europe. He was wounded during the second Battle of the Marne but returned to the front and spearheaded a project to create life-sized silhouettes of soldiers that would mislead the Germans about troop numbers and deployment.

He resumed his studies at the academy after the war and won a fellowship to study in Paris in 1920. He didn't return to the United States for years and came back only because of World War II in 1940. Though he made his home in the United States, he maintained an apartment in Paris for the rest of his life.

During his 20 years there, Rattner seems to have known everyone on the Paris art scene, which was the epicenter of the art world. His standing can be measured by the company he kept professionally. For example, in 1937 his work was highlighted in the first issue of Verve, an acclaimed magazine that published the top writers and artists. Matisse created its cover.

Rattner's most successful period commercially was in the 1940s and 1950s, when prominent collectors regularly bought his paintings. He was a valued teacher at art institutes and universities, including Yale, and continued to paint prolifically, branching out into other mediums with commissions for tapestry designs and stained glass installations, for example, until his death. His most famous installation is in the Chicago Loop Synagogue.

His first wife, Bettina Bedwell , died suddenly in 1947 after 23 years of marriage. His second wife, Esther Gentle , survived him. The Nazi atrocities affected Rattner deeply. And he was made further distraught by Bettina's death. His work had always had an emotional component, but in many instances it became much more spiritual, even overtly religious, in later years. He also became more abstract stylistically.

The Painting

Rattner created The Flying Trapeze while in Paris. Its exact date is unknown because it's one in a series of paintings in this style from the 1930s when he was a rising star on the art scene. At the time, he was affiliated with the surrealist movement, and this painting reflects its influence.

It's considered one of his best paintings. Rattner, admired for his bold use of color, limited his palette during that decade to inky greens. The figures — or sometimes just body parts — are part of the curving undulations covering the canvas that suggest movement. It's a suave balance between the figurative and abstract.

It was displayed prominently in a 1935 one-man show at the prestigious New York gallery owned by Julien Levy. Rattner received glowing reviews and was proclaimed a great artist by some critics.

The Museum

The Leepa-Rattner Museum, on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, contains the largest collection of work by Abraham Rattner in the world. Opened in 2002, it was founded by Rattner's stepson, the late Allen Leepa. It also houses work by Leepa and his late mother, Esther Gentle, both artists, as well as a large collection of work by other artists Rattner collected, especially prints and drawings. Rattner had a personal relationship, sometimes even close friendship, with many of them, and the inventory reads like a who's who of the Parisian art scene between the wars.

Note to Woody Allen: Rattner should have had a cameo in Midnight in Paris (left).

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

>> IF YOU GO

Leepa-Rattner Museum

The Leepa-Rattner Museum is at 600 Klosterman Road on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors and free to children, students with ID and military personnel and their families with ID. (727) 712-5762 or spcollege.edu/museum.

Art in Focus: 'The Flying Trapeze' by Abraham Rattner 08/06/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 5:30am]

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