Symbol of the Human Predicament

I read in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the Noyes Museum in Oceanville is exhibiting the work of Jacob Landau through Jan. 2. Says the exhibition blurb: “Provocative and inspiring Landau bears witness to man’s responsibility for injustice… Timeless and relevant Landau is uncompromising as he presents the figure as a symbol of the human predicament, of the beauty and horror of existence.”

Landau was, of course, a Roosevelt resident, and I got to visit his house a number of years ago. Mr. Landau had the good fortune to live in a house designed by Louis Kahn and work in a studio designed by Buckminster Fuller. Mr. Fuller designed about six geodesic domes in Roosevelt, according to Rosa Giletti, Mr. Landau’s representative and close friend.

As a child growing up in Philadelphia, Jacob was labeled a prodigy. He would draw on the brown wrapping paper his mother brought groceries home in. “The strength and movement of the animals at the Philadelphia Zoo caught his eye – and pencil,” says Ms. Giletti. “His studies and knowledge of the human figure grew from his love of animals. No matter how abstract his work got, he understood the power of the human form and its movement.”

He attended classes at the Graphic Sketch Club – later called the Fleisher Art Memorial – as an adolescent. In high school, he illustrated books and won awards from Scholastic magazine.

By his senior year, he was commissioned to illustrate The Secret of the Blue Macaw. He earned a scholarship to study at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). In 1943 he was drafted into the Army and served for three years. Both the war and the Holocaust changed his outlook.

He spent a year at the New School, then went to study in France for three years before returning to the New School. He taught anatomy, graphics and illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art after moving to Roosevelt.

In 1957 Mr. Landau began his 35-year career at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he served as chairman.

After following his friend Ben Shahn to Roosevelt, his style became increasingly expressionistic, although his work remained figurative. He saw the human body as emblematic of the universe.

“When I was young, I was attracted to edges of forms rather than volumes,” he wrote. “I loved the 16th-century engravers, particularly Schongower and Durer. It proved to be too confining and in the ’60s I separated the lines from the forms. My work became ‘painterly.’ The quest for the linear, which had begun with admiration for the comic book with its flat colors and its defying of gravity, gave way to a play with light and air. In the ’70s I returned to line, but line that is modified by atmosphere.”

His work in prints, drawings and watercolors, with its distorted form, fantastic vision and agitated movement, was compared to German Expressionism, especially because of his political commentary and insight into man’s cruelty and suffering.

“If in my work I seem to stress the tragic, it is because of a felt need to counter the fake cheerfulness of our culture, its smiles max-factored out of all resemblance to the human,” he wrote. “Bertolt Brecht said, ‘The man who laughs has not yet been told the terrible news.'”

“Although he may sound as if he were depressing, he was a riot. We would laugh together and have a good time,” says Ms. Giletti. “His view of the human condition was a tragic one, but with a saving grace.” Despite his fragmented view of reality, there is a rhythm than flows through his work that offers stability to a chaotic world.

In his lifetime, Mr. Landau had more than 60 one-person shows and was the recipient of many awards, including Tiffany, Guggenheim and National Arts Council grants. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and the New Jersey State Museum.

“As he progressed he began to lose the structure of representation and fantasy took over,” says Ms. Giletti. “His desire to express the tragic in life became foremost. We have great potential but don’t live up to that hope. He wanted people to be challenged by his work.”

Her eyes becoming misty, Ms. Giletti says, “He changed my life. He opened me to so much more. I hear music differently now.”

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1 Response to Symbol of the Human Predicament

  1. Is it my imagination, Ilene, or is the Noyes Museum choosing stronger and stronger shows with every passing season?

    I’ve been down there twice recently, not ONLY for the birds (at next-door Brigantine Wildlife Refuge), but for stunning and yes, deeply meaningful art of people we know here.

    What accounts for the increased depth?

    Thank you as ever for opening our eyes not only to art but to significant history.


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