By Geneva M. Gano

Edinburgh University Press. 296 pages. £24.99. ISBN 978-1-4744-3976-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Art colonies came in various shapes and sizes. They were a notable feature of artistic life in Europe and America prior to the First World War, and some continued after 1914. But many had been in coastal locations and the war had particularly affected them. Added to which few people could travel to them, even if they continued to have some sort of relevance in terms of artistic activity. The point of a colony was to give people the opportunity to meet others with similar interests and develop their work in a sympathetic atmosphere. It may not have always worked out like that, creative people often having a tendency to compete and argue when they feel that they have been snubbed or slighted in any way.

There was, also, the problem of colonies becoming too popular in terms of the hordes of people visiting them. It’s significant that the number of art colonies expanded as the nineteenth century saw the rise of a middle-class with the time and money to spend on their developing interest in art, not only from the point of view of creating it but also of appreciating it. And, for many people, there was the entertainment value of increasingly looking on artists as some sort of rare breed who lived free-and-easy lives devoid of the everyday responsibilities that beset other people. The bohemian idea, both for the beholder and the practitioner, was largely a product of industrial capitalism.

It’s possible to add other reasons for the growth of art colonies. The introduction of easier ways of carrying paint in tubes, and the availability of portable easels, made painting outdoors much easier.  Of particular importance was the extension of the railway network to locations that were previously thought of as difficult to access. It was easier for artists to get to coastal villages that had once seemed isolated. They could, if necessary, reside there just for a few summer months and then escape back to the comforts of the city when winter came in. It was convenient to keep in touch with galleries and dealers if there were regular rail services to major cities. And people perhaps likely to purchase paintings could travel by train to view what artists were producing.

Geneva M. Gano’s book focuses on three American art colonies. They were originally among the many that sprang up across the United States at a time when unfettered capitalism seemed unstoppable in its determination to impose its values on everyone and everything. This led to vast disparities of wealth and the violent social conflict that caused. There may be some irony in the fact that many, if not most, of the artists and their patrons who lived in or visited the art colonies, and were often critical of rampant capitalism, were the beneficiaries of funds created from that source.

It was necessary to have some money to be able to move to Carmel or Provincetown or Taos in the first place. A patron might provide it, or it could be from a private income, and sometimes from selling a painting or two. Gano makes the point that, in Jack London’s novel The Valley of the Moon, two working-class characters who visit Carmel, while searching for an alternative to life in the factories and warehouses of the cities, see it as “a playground for bohemian leisure” and decide not to settle there. The “modernism” in the title of Gano’s book refers not only to that suggested by developments in the arts, but also to the widespread influence of the growth of a capitalist economy.

Gano’s approach is to present a general outline of the development of each of her chosen colonies and the effect that the arrival of the artists had on the original inhabitants, and in turn, the impact that the advent of tourism had on the artists. She then adds lengthy analyses of relevant works by major figures related to the colonies. With Carmel she looks at Robinson Jeffers, for Provincetown its Eugene O’Neill, and for Taos, D.H. Lawrence. My only complaint about this method would be that not enough attention is paid to other writers and artists in the communities involved. The result then tends to be that it’s difficult to decide if sufficient work of quality was created in a wider sense. The reader may find it difficult to understand whether or not it went beyond the ordinary and added anything of value to the world-wide continuity of artistic modernism.  

From Gano’s account of Carmel it would seem that, almost from the start, its role as a haven for artists was under threat from real estate developers and other local businessmen. And from tourism. She quotes from a journalist who, as early as 1892, was noting the fact that “the whole area had been transformed into a veritable picnicking ground for the whole state” and the genuine bohemians were being pushed out. And there’s the later lament by Robinson Jeffers in his poem, “Carmel Point”, when he refers to “This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses”.

Similar problems of business interests intervening and too many tourists arriving were experienced in Provincetown. Charles Hawthorne had established an art school there in 1899, and the writer Mary Heaton Vorse bought a house in the town in 1905 and encouraged friends and contacts from Greenwich Village to visit and sometimes settle along Cape Cod. The local economy, primarily centred around fishing, was in decline, and it was obviously to the advantage of real estate developers and businesses to look for alternative sources of income. Renting and selling properties to artists and writers boomed and astute promoters began to advertise the idea of Provincetown as a bohemian outpost where painters and poets could be seen at play.

I think that, in many ways, Provincetown might be a livelier subject for commentary than Carmel. The range of creative artists and others who either lived in the area, or spent some time there, was wider and reflected the fact that New York was within manageable distance as far as travel was concerned. Numerous relatively well-known painters and writers could congregate not only in Provincetown itself but also in neighbouring towns like Truro and Wellfleet. But Provincetown was essentially the centre of activities and as such was where tourists aimed for. Inevitably, the tourists, and the well-to-do who had little interest in the arts but liked the idea of living around Cape Cod, began to take over, with the result that many of the genuinely creative people drifted away. There can never be a bohemia if property prices and the general cost of living prevent struggling painters and poets, and the idiosyncratic and eccentric types who cluster around them, from living cheaply and getting together.

Gano looks in some detail at the role played in the Provincetown art colony by the Provincetown Players. Founded by George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, with Mary Heaton Vorse, Neith Boyce, and one or two others in close support, the Players’ original intention was to present mostly short plays largely written by members of the local bohemian community. It initially had “no aim except the amusement of its members”, and the people who wrote the plays often acted in them. Scenery, where it existed, was functional. Should anyone want to sample the kind of work written and performed by some of those involved there is an excellent selection of short plays in The Provincetown Players, edited by Barbara Ozieblo, published by Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.

Most of the plays are probably forgotten now, but Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East For Cardiff, is remembered as an early work by someone who became famous and not only in America. He doesn’t appear to have written anything that referred specifically to Provincetown and its inhabitants, and Gano devotes most of her comments on O’Neill to the Emperor Jones, the play which effectively brought him to the attention of critics and wider audiences. Daring to feature a black actor in the leading role it was launched in Greenwich Village, moved to Broadway, and extensively toured the country at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was active. Not all Provincetown’s supposed liberals were colour blind, and limits on what blacks could do were in operation in many towns and cities. Gano points out that it was written while O’Neill was living on Cape Cod. Her analysis of the play is perceptive. O’Neill, of course, was ambitious and Provincetown was simply one rung on the ladder to success. Not everyone was as idealistic as George Cram Cook.

Both Carmel and Provincetown were coastal locations with developing transport facilities, but when Mabel Dodge Sterne (as she was then) “discovered” Taos she couldn’t have chosen a more isolated place from the point of view of access. Set in the New Mexico desert, its nearest train depot was over twenty miles away and road travel meant “a long rough trip”. The isolation seemed to attract “a creative class of painters, writers, lovers of Nature and students of American history”. But Gano suggests that Taos wasn’t perhaps as isolated as we might think. It was, she says, “a long-established, cosmopolitan site of transnational commerce and intercultural exchange”. It wasn’t a complete cultural backwater, and as soon as artists and writers began to arrive in force commercial interests were quick to use their presence for advertising purposes.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, as she became when she married a local resident, Tony Luhan, had the money to live in comfort and invite artists, writers, and others to spend long, and hopefully productive periods in Taos. Marsden Hartley and Andrew Dasburg were among the first visitors, followed by Leo Stein, Willa Cather, Jean Toomer, Carl Jung, and Georgia O’Keefe. Gano indicates that they were attempting to “escape” from “a repellent modernity epitomised by the European war fuelled by a capitalism run amok and stoked by technological advances”. What they were seeking in Taos was not only a refuge from industrial society and war, but also a kind of spiritual awakening that they might find among the original inhabitants of the area.

The Pueblo Indians, whose traditional ceremonial dances and practices were frowned on by the authorities, seemed to offer something far beyond the mere physical satisfactions of the everyday. But their activities were under threat from the “two most reprehensible elements of mass modernity: aggressive and ongoing governmental suppression and a voracious uncontrolled capitalism”. The artists and writers, or “anarcho-bohemians”, as Gano describes them, empathised with the dancers, having suffered their own “political persecution and cultural suppression” when the government banned certain publications, limited freedom of expression, and introduced conscription after America decided to go to war in 1917.  

When D.H. Lawrence arrived in Taos he was in search of his own refuge from modern society. His short novel, St Mawr, looked at in some detail by Gano, tells the story of Lou, a sophisticated but disillusioned young woman who flees from polite society in London and elsewhere and seeks salvation in the American South West. But, “as Lawrence finally shows us, Lou’s attempted escape from the modern world system can only be unsuccessful. As the reader is gradually made aware, there is nowhere beyond or outside of this system to escape to. Even at the world’s most apparently pristine and unmolested margins and edges, buying and selling is the rule of the day”. 

Gano closes her book with some brief comments on Taos today where it’s possible to book into the Frieda Lawrence or Georgia O’Keefe room for the night at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house. And attend a creative retreat or workshop. She also mentions a new “art colony” in Marfa, Texas, with “nineteen permanent art galleries, multiple non-profit foundations devoted to the arts, internationally celebrated music and arts festivals”, plus restaurants and the like. This truly is the age of the arts administrator and not the artist.

The Little Art Colony and US Modernism is a useful and provocative book, well-researched and coherently argued. My own feeling, for what it’s worth, is that art colonies, like bohemia (other than in its individual “state of mind” sense), are essentially a thing of the past. They depended on spontaneity for their creation and can’t be constructed by institutions.  They had their day and reading about them is always fascinating and likely to fill one with nostalgia for a perhaps shabbier but more open time. But the bureaucrats have taken over and creative people are now subject to their whims and wishes for bigger audiences and greater profits.