Imprinted in history

Stanford Art Gallery celebrates its centennial with the art of Pedro de Lemos

The Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, located near the Main Quad on the Stanford campus, might be considered a step-sister to larger, more imposing and better-known art edifices like the Cantor and the Anderson Collection. Built in 1917 as a gift from the brother of university founder Leland Stanford, it was created to show off the younger Stanford's art collection. Since then, the gallery, with its distinctive sky-light roof, has been the site for innumerable exhibitions of student- and faculty-art works. For its centennial celebration, however, the Gallery is displaying the colorful and innovative printmaking of Pedro de Lemos. "Lasting Impressions of Pedro de Lemos: The Centennial Exhibition" is on view until Dec. 3.

Never heard of de Lemos? Most people have not, which is amazing when you become aware of his importance as an artist, art administrator, curator, writer and designer. De Lemos (1882-1954) was raised in Oakland and attended art school in San Francisco. In 1913, he went to New York to study under Arthur Wesley Dow (famous for being one of Georgia O'Keeffe's mentors) at Columbia University. Upon returning to the Bay Area, he owned several printing and photography studios, which offered classes in everything from traditional printing techniques to working in copper and leather. De Lemos was a staunch advocate of the Arts and Crafts movement (active from 1880-1920), which celebrated the return to handcrafts and nature as a remedy for the anxiety/isolation caused by industrialism. For those involved in the movement, there was a firm belief in Utopian societies in which the designer was also a craftsman and where simplicity reigned supreme.

De Lemos became so proficient at printmaking that he began teaching it at the San Francisco Institute of Art in 1911. He helped to organize the print section of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, where he had five works on display. He soon moved into arts administration, directing the Institute of Art from 1914 to 1917. His association with Stanford University began in 1917, when he became director of the art museum and gallery. It was a position he would hold until his retirement in 1945. During his tenure, he curated countless exhibitions — all the while becoming known as a prolific author of books and magazine articles about art education. His best-known book, "Art Simplified," was a popular elementary and high school textbook and was reprinted many times.

Somehow, de Lemos also found time to get involved in cultural organizations (he was the first president of the Carmel Art Association) and helped found the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park. He wrote, "Art is not for the talented, nor is it a luxury for humanity. Art can be applied to everything connected with life's needs and civilization's comforts." To that end, de Lemos and his wife Reta (also an artist) designed a 9,000-square-foot Spanish and Craftsman home in the Waverley Oaks section of Palo Alto. Completed in 1941, the "Hacienda" is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"I knew he was a prolific artist, but it was not until I saw the large collection of his work at the Trotter Galleries in Pacific Grove that I truly understood the breadth of his talents," explained exhibition curator Robert Edwards. Edwards, who has written a book about the art colonies of Carmel and Berkeley, organized the exhibition, which was mounted previously at the Monterey Museum of Art.

The show is arranged to highlight the artist's proficiency in a variety of print techniques: intaglio, lithography, relief (woodcuts) and pastels. Didactic labels describe both his manner of execution and his philosophy about art. One quote seems prescient, given the current importance the University is placing on interdisciplinary education: "Art is a science and art students should know, just as in any form of science, the principle of order in art development."

Viewers can see these principles of order (which include naturalistic, geometric and abstract) at work in his prints. "Pt. Lobos" is comprised of simple lines, muted colors and the slightly cropped perspective that is often seen in Japanese prints. It is a dream-like scene, in which details are hazy yet evocative. In "Seaside Sentinels," a woodcut of wind-swept cypress trees, we see the basic outlines, as carved into the key block, and then the final print with color applied. Solid areas of yellow comprise the hillside, while tiny white flowers bloom in the grass below the trees. These are not necessarily the colors found in nature, as de Lemos developed his own color theory based on the idea that colors could express emotion. Simplicity and a love for nature are hallmarks of his work. His sepia-toned etchings depicting campus landmarks, such as "The Stanford Art Gallery," faithfully capture the Romanesque sandstone and tile architecture for which the university is famous.

And we can see just how basic and fundamental the printmaking process is, thanks to displays holding etching plates and wood blocks, as well as an accumulation of printer's tools — burins, chisels, knives and hammers — all of which are still used today. True to his Arts and Crafts ideal of art being available to everyone, de Lemos invented his own leather stamping technique, designed to assist the home printer in creating art.

So how can such an important and influential artist be so unrecognized? Gallery director Gabriel Harrison has a theory: "Art history, and the public, often dismiss artists who are working at the tail end of a movement." Even though de Lemos was progressive in his views toward gender equality (a large percentage of his curated exhibitions featured art by women) he was firmly against the idea of Modernism because it did not celebrate the hand of the artist. In addition, de Lemos championed the work of Stanford students, with little recognition.

"For three decades at Stanford University de Lemos promoted with exhibitions many young artists who went on to establish brilliant careers nationally, but are seldom remembered today," Edwards said.

Harrison noted that current Stanford art majors are visiting the gallery to study de Lemos' prints and working method. The exhibition is a fitting tribute to an artist who had such a profound and lasting impact on the arts at Stanford. Said Alex Nemerov, chair of the Department of Art and Art History, "Thanks to the exhibition, the department gains a stronger sense of its historical foundations — of who this important predecessor was and how his presence can still be felt on campus."

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

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Like this comment
Posted by Larry Brown
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 4, 2017 at 4:07 pm

Well written and informative. I saw both the earlier exhibit and this one and learned much from both. Thanks.

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