By Roxana Popescu, San Diego Union-Tribune

March 8, 2017

Is San Diego a good place to make art? That’s recently been a subject for debate in San Diego’s visual art community, but things were different, if not incomparable, for three artists who moved here in the early and mid-20th century and found San Diego to be a generous and generative adoptive home.

Belle Baranceanu, Maurice Braun and Harry Sternberg each found success elsewhere and then headed west. Their works, before and after their moves, are the focus of an intriguing exhibition at the San Diego History Center.

“San Diego was really the edge of the world for them, at that moment. They could come here and redefine themselves and their artistic practice,” said Tara Centybear, the exhibition’s curator.

Braun, born in 1877, painted at a time when photography was still a rarity, making his work valuable from a historical perspective. An oil from about 100 years ago shows a eucalyptus-dotted dell — now perhaps a freeway or gas station? A painting from 1930 shows Point Loma as a brushy outback.

“He’s documenting this landscape that is now completely changed,” Centybear said.

These sunny landscapes are a departure from his work in New England — mostly portraits and still lifes, Centybear said. In California, “the sky became much more important. The landscape was really his sole muse.”

Baranceanu was born in 1902 and taught at Francis Parker School for decades. Her artistic transformation, visible in the contrasting types of works on display, was driven by the new professional opportunities she earned here.

She was a studio painter in her native Chicago. One example in the show is a cramped little oil of a railroad yard, from 1927, on loan, with a number of other works in the show, from Sandra and Bram Dijkstra. The horizon is high, the sky is heavy, and save for a patch of shrubbery in the foreground, the scene is a thicket of metal and smoke. 

Here her art became spare and monumental, but also broadly significant, thanks to a series of commissions for murals from the Works Progress Administration. Those pieces, including two on display at the museum, ended up cementing her fame.

“It’s especially impressive as a woman artist at the time to be jumping into this very male-dominated field and to have accomplished as much as she has,” Centybear said.

The show also features a newly restored landscape of Mission Hills and downtown. The paint was flaking off so badly that the canvas had to be transported horizontally to prevent the cracked chips from sliding away.

It took hundreds of hours to repair, said Morgan Wylder, a Mellon Fellow in paintings conservation at the Balboa Art Conservation Center.

Sternberg died in Escondido in 2001.

“Combining realism with aspects of abstraction and surrealism, Sternberg created dark, dramatic works, often with a distinctly oneiric impact,” Bram Dijkstra, an art historian and a professor emeritus of comparative literature at the University of California San Diego, wrote in a biographical note.

The show includes nine of Sternberg’s screen prints, all portraits of other artists, done in New York in the 1940s. Could the lanky, lounging hippies in the Borrego Desert, circa 1970, in hot neons, possibly be by the same person?

In San Diego, Sternberg found the license to experiment with form, medium and color, Centybear said.

The exhibition is part of a broader show at the museum about San Diego’s Jewish community. The artists were born Jewish, and while religion was not a pivotal aspect of their artistic practice, it is a theme in some works on display.

“In a subtle way, the work of the three artists in the History Center’s exhibition reflects the position of all Jews in society,” Bram Dijkstra wrote in an email. “Because good art upsets the cultural applecart, truly serious artists, by their very nature, are outsiders. For most of the 20th century, Jews, too, have largely been outsiders whether or not they wanted to be. But, the farther from the ‘norm’ they found themselves, the more likely they were to want to ‘normalize’ their position.

“The three San Diego Jewish artists in ‘Art & Heritage,’ for this reason, reflect the changing cultural position of Jews in American society: Braun, as a new immigrant to America from Hungary, seeking ‘cultural compliance’ in most (tho not all) of his work, Baranceanu, adventurously exploring modernism by stepping beyond her era’s visual norms, and Sternberg, reflecting a further opening of the American mind, comfortably and expertly thumbing his nose at convention.”

Sternberg arrived here later in his life, but especially for Braun and Baranceanu, “they were creating the San Diego art world by participating in it,” Centybear said.

While it might be tempting to try to understand their careers in terms of these poles — East Coast or Midwest versus San Diego, intimate versus grand, canonical versus inventive — that would be reductive. What San Diego did appear to do, for all three, was to illuminate new possibilities, which they seized.

Link to original article: San Diego History Center exhibit explores work, lives of Jewish artists

Portion of Harry Sternberg's "David Burliuk (Portrait)" (Collection of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra)