Belle Baranceanu (1902-1988)
Belle once confessed that she was really born in 1902, although she had been telling people for years that her birth date was 1905 and this was published several times. Initial attempts to locate her birth records were complicated by the fact that a confused county clerk recorded her name as “Bellae Goldphleager.” Belle’s parents, Romanian immigrants Abram and Mary Agnes (Baranceanu) Goldschlager, separated when she was very young. She and her sister, Teresa, were raised by their maternal grandparents on a farm in North Dakota. The family did not reunite until 1920.
Attending school in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis School of Art graduated her in 1924. Continuing there as a post-graduate student, Baranceanu studied under Anthony Angarola who became the major influence on her development as an artist. Concurrent with her art studies, Baranceanu studied ballet with equal interest, unsure which career she would pursue. Although she decided a career in art had greater potential for longevity, her physical conditioning came in handy when she needed to scamper around on mural scaffolding. In order to continue study with Angarola, she followed him to the Art Institute of Chicago where she enrolled in 1925. Among her other instructors there were Richard Lahey, Morris Davidson, and Cameron Booth. Baranceanu and Angarola also began to develop an extracurricular relationship.
Baranceanu exhibited Grossmutter for the first time in San Diego in 1934 but it must actually date to before it was sent to Los Angeles in 1927. It is an extraordinary composition in grays. Everett Jackson once said that you could always tell a Baranceanu painting because it had some gray in it. The vast volume of the figure, held in by the darker shapes in the background, is contrasted with beautifully painted hands and small but compelling face with its piercing eyes. Upon close inspection, it is discovered that the face is composed of subtle but distinct triangles of color. The painting is a bold and unforgettable image and a remarkable monument to the woman who had raised her.
Although she was a skilled colorist, Baranceanu did not frequently use bright colors in her work. A notable exception is The Yellow Robe, a portrait of the artist’s sister, Teresa, which announced Baranceanu’s arrival in Los Angeles when a jury accepted it for the annual Painters and Sculptors of Southern California exhibition in 1927 (Plate 6, page 136).
The muted tones of the background enhance the impact of the brilliant yellow and orange robe. Teresa’s striking profile is set off by a waterfall of dark hair which also exaggerates the length of her neck. It is a stunningly sophisticated and precocious work for a twenty-five- year-old artist. When confronted with such images as Grossmutter and The Yellow Robe, Angarola must have realized that his student’s talent had surpassed his own.
Angarola’s relationship with Baranceanu appears to have developed into something more than teacher-pupil, however, trying to determine her sexuality is not a simple matter. She once told me, with a chuckle, that after doing a number of drawings and paintings of reclining female nudes including several lush black women, her mother asked her to please stop because “the neighbors are beginning to talk.” Another incident she reported happened when she applied for a scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago. The committee met to make their selection and the female director of the institute accused Baranceanu of being a lesbian. Angarola, who also sat on the committee obviously could not tell them he had been having a relationship with her so she did not receive the award.
Even the nature of her relationship with Angarola is difficult to establish. Part of the problem resulted from Baranceanu’s later decision to burn his letters. According to Angarola’s son, Richard, she later regretted having done this. A few letters survive including one to her mother. Most of them are giving suggestions for improving a composition and are certainly not passionate. In one dated March 14, 1927, written to her when she was in Los Angeles, he told her about a lithograph he had been working on that depicted her head and shoulders in profile and sent a sketch of it. The letter is addressed to “My Dearest Belle,” but has no closing greeting. Another dated June 23 (1927), written when he was visiting her in Los Angeles, is more affectionate. He wrote “You look so sweet and delightfully charming as you sit close to me I could almost weep with happiness” and is signed “I love you.” They do not appear to be two people desperately in love. In the letter to Belle’s mother dated October 23, 1927, Angarola spends most of it apologizing to her for having caused a hurt resulting from his decision not to have his children meet Baranceanu. She remained two years in California and perhaps because of the separation, their relationship developed quickly upon her return to Chicago. By the time Angarola left for Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1929, they made the decision to get married. This was not to be.
Other clues suggest a likely conclusion. Baranceanu preferred to wear “mannish” clothing such as slacks and once refused a job offer at the prestigious Bishop’s School because they would not allow her to wear sandals. Except for a few of her murals the male figure is almost totally absent from her work, a notable exception being her portrait of Todros Geller. Although she had a number of male suitors, she never married. The longest relationship of her life seems to have been with Ettilie Wallace, a local poet and journalist, who probably met her while on an interview in the mid 1930s. They remained close for the rest of their lives and Wallace became her conservator. Wallace is also reported to have posed for Baranceanu when she illustrated Dr. George Huff’s two books on gynecology in the early 1940s. This is certainly not something one would ask of anyone except an intimate friend.
In 1926, Baranceanu entered Riverview Section, Chicago in the prestigious annual American Paintings Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was her first attempt at this show and she was one of the youngest artists ever to be accepted. It took William Schwartz, Angarola’s friend and student, eight attempts before he made it that same year. Baranceanu must have been proud having her work hung in the company of George Luks, Robert Henri, William Glackens, and John Sloan, as well as the emerging talents of Eugene Speicher and Ivan Albright. One of her rivals said, “You mean that little snot got in.”
Baranceanu’s father, an orthodox Jew, was becoming increasingly alarmed by the growing attachment between his daughter and the Catholic Italian, Angarola. In his mind all Italians were gangsters. In a desperate attempt to separate them he sent her to Los Angeles in 1927 to stay with her uncle, Zack Baroney, who seems to have introduced her to the Hollywood scene. A photograph exists of her standing in front of a house next to Rossetta Duncan and her sister, and she was always pleased when someone told her she bore a resemblance to exotic silent film star Alla Nazimova.
Baranceanu settled in the area near Elysian Park on Everett Street, and many fine paintings of the district exist. For Baranceanu, the separation from Angarola was a good thing. It allowed her to develop in a more independent direction. Her compositions became simpler, her colors purer, her color harmonies more pleasing. She corresponded with Angarola who made comments on little sketches he sent her, but basically she had total freedom of vision.
While in Paris, Angarola was seriously injured in an automobile accident and taken unconscious to a hospital where he remained for several weeks.
After recovering, he returned to Chicago. One mid-August day, Baranceanu and Angarola made plans to meet for lunch. He never showed so she had lunch with her sister. Teresa’s husband (she was married only briefly) worked for the paper and learned that Angarola had been found dead in his apartment. Baranceanu was devastated, but considering her lesbian tendencies, one wonders if her devastation was caused by the loss of her fianc6. Having been separated from Angarola for nearly two years she may have looked upon marriage as a way of keeping him with her. Suddenly she lost her artistic guide and mentor and was forced to fly on her own. Angarola was probably looking for comfort from his loneliness after his wife divorced him and took away his children. His death may have been the best thing that ever happened to Baranceanu.
In a sense, Baranceanu’s Self Portrait is her declaration of independence. It contains a small portrait of Angarola which memorializes his continuing influence on her but there is no sentimentality here. She looks straight forward with strength and the determination to take control of her life. Although certainly painted soon after Angarola’s death, Baranceanu always kept the portrait hanging in her house and did not publically exhibit it until the San Diego Art Guild had a portrait exhibition in 1944.
Totally on her own, Baranceanu began to distill her style falling back on what she had learned in Los Angeles. A number of urban scenes from this period show continued development from her work in Los Angeles including a clarity of composition and a purification of color. Baranceanu’s urban scenes such as Riverview Section, Chicago and Wabash Avenue Bridge, which won the Clyde M. Carr prize at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1931, show complete disinterest in architectural precision. Beginning with a small canvas she completed about 1924, she created a Caligarian vision where lines are not straight, roofs are at odd angles, telephone poles lean, and drain pipes bend.
In the classic German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the “Doctor,” a fairground showman, has a coffin-like cabinet which contains the strange somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) who is called from his box to perform his master’s murderous deeds. In Veidt’s confused mind, streets are bent at odd angles over which the tops of buildings nearly meet. Windows are skew and lampposts lean at precarious angles. These are all hallmarks of German Expressionist painting. Released in 1919, this film could certainly have been seen by and influenced Baranceanu.
In Lee, we have a perfect example of Baranceanu’s painting technique. A dark blue outline defines the basic shapes of the composition. These shapes are then filled in with the various colors using a zig-zag movement of the brush which prevents them from becoming too flat. The exaggerated diagonals in the background help to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the group of objects in the upper left corner: the mirror, toothbrush holder, toilet water bottle, sink, and model’s head. Lee bends over to inspect her foot creating an awkward arrangement of hips which Baranceanu has intentionally exaggerated for pictorial effect.
The Johnson Girl is Baranceanu’s most charming portrait. It depicts a young neighbor named Murial Johnson. The Botticellian lyricism of the figure is set against a background of geometric patterns and a blue pot which perfectly compliments the random pattern of fans on the robe. Usually overlooked, this painting contains what must be the most subtle self-portrait in the history of art. Reflected in a mirror behind the sitter is the back of her ease] as well as part of the artist’s shoulder, a sliver of neck, and a bit of hair.
To support herself in Depression-era Chicago, Baranceanu began what was to become a long career in education. She also seems to have become more involved with Chicago’s Jewish community, teaching at the American Boys Commonwealth, Deborah Club, Hebrew Schools of the Board of Jewish Education and the Jewish People’s Institute. She also taught at the Midwest Art Students’ League with Raoul Josset and Todros Geller. She and Geller shared a studio for a while and, being too busy, he asked her to do the illustrations for Rose Lurie’s book The Great March. He took credit, but the original drawings are in the Baranceanu archives at the San Diego History Center. In 1933 Baranceanu wrote a short essay in Art of Today Chicago edited by J. Z. Jacobson, and illustrated with Riverview Section, Chicago. In it she declared “Limiting oneself to theories is fatal.” She also indicated that her most important influence was Angarola through whom she learned to understand Giotto, El Greco and Cezanne.
By 1933, the Depression had become so bad that the Goldschlager clan decided to move west, after all, it would be easier to be poor in warm California. It was also about this time that Baranceanu and her sister convinced their father to let them change their names to their mother’s maiden name and he consented since he presumed that one day they would both marry and change their names anyway. Initially attempting to get a teaching job at Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, she later joined her family in San Diego in time to have two pieces accepted for the annual spring Exhibition of Southern California Art. San Diego’s art scene must have looked very provincial to her and she once said “I looked down my nose” at the local art community. As she met the local artists, this arrogance began to disappear.
Soon after her arrival in San Diego, Baranceanu became involved in the series of work programs initiated by the federal government to keep artists employed during those tough times. Her first mural, done for the Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration (November 1933 to June 1934) is titled San Diego and is now in the collection of the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D. C. A small mural with vertical format, it depicts the industries around San Diego Bay including shipbuilding and aeronautics. Several other early murals were done in anticipation of the California-Pacific International Exposition (1935-1936) for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These included Brothers of the Church, Girl with a Fawn in true fresco on an outside wall, and Progress of Man, one of only two of her murals that survive in their original location.
Other murals for public buildings followed. She painted Scenic View of the Village, on an awkward wall with part of a doorway through it for the La Jolla Post Office (1935-36). Her last two mural projects were done in city schools as part of the Curriculum Project of the WPA. For Roosevelt Junior High she was asked to use the theme of the “Four Cornerstones of American Democracy” for which she prepared some working drawings. Finding the concept terribly dull, she switched to historical subjects: Building Padre Dam and Portola’s Departure (1937-38). Her final, and largest mural, The Seven Arts (1939-40), was painted around the proscenium of the La Jolla High School auditorium. She used casein and painted directly on the wall, scampering around the scaffolding while the school orchestra practiced below.
While working on the Curriculum Project, Baranceanu began to design and cut linoleum block prints for their book covers, most of which depict animals. The exquisite designs and precise cutting make this a remarkable series. When the project ended, they kept her blocks as federal property so she had to cut them all again to produce her own editions. To the original designs she added several new pieces as well as Drill Baboon printed in five colors. One of the other artists doing illustrations for the Curriculum Project was Hilda Preibisius. She and Baranceanu became good friends and Baranceanu painted her portrait. Preibisius’ modest gaze is counter posed against the enormous, eye-like buttons of her blouse.
By the 1940s, Baranceanu had pretty much given up easel painting except for an occasional portrait such as the stunning Sue Earnest and Her Children (1942-44). The last known painting she exhibited in San Diego was Self-Portrait at the San Diego Art Guild in 1944. She exhibited an oil still-life at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1947. Baranceanu began to focus her creative efforts on block printing and shipped her linocuts to exhibits all over the country, certainly easier than crating paintings. She also became involved with the war effort. She designed a series of posters and produced six small murals depicting war scenes for windows at the Marston Department Store. Additionally, she taught art to service men through the USO. After the war, Baranceanu once again settled on a career in art education. From 1946 to 1951 she taught at the San Diego School of Arts and Crafts with Fred Hocks and Ben Messick. She instructed students at Francis Parker School from 1946 to 1969.
In 1950 the San Diego Art Guild elected her president, and photographs more frequently show her wearing a dress. She had not been a practicing Jew for many years and as she approached her later years she began to follow the teachings of Krishnamurti, which gave her comfort.
In the early 1970s, she began to work with abstract compositions based on the city lights reflecting off San Diego Harbor. Also at this time she had the great misfortune to see what she considered to be her finest mural, Seven Arts, destroyed when the building was declared seismically unsafe. Privately, she told me that she was very intimate with that building, and she was convinced that some architect looking for a job had condemned it.
The Roosevelt Junior High murals were done on canvas and were saved. They are now stored at the San Diego History Center for eventual installation in the Museum of San Diego History in Balboa Park.
Baranceanu was moved to a rest home in the early 1980s. Her mind in a fog, her free spirit could not be suppressed. One night they found her dancing naked in the halls singing “Aphrodite wears no nightie.” Ettilie Wallace fondly published a poem about her in a local writers anthology called nyrsus in 1985:
On Visiting My Friend
At this high window,
Look down on sand and
I hold my friend,
My slow-to-die old friend
Her head on my lap,
She sleeps in another time.
Everywhere the same
Multitudinous the patterns
thrown by its waves.
[from Kamerling, Bruce. “Belle Baranceanu.” The Journal of San Diego History 40.3 (Summer 1994): 112-127.]
Belle Baranceanu painting a mural
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