Frank Mechau (1904-1946) is generally thought to be one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. The Colorado native inarguably ranks first among regional peers, despite his brief life and comparatively small body of work. On Friday, March 5, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center will open a major exhibition of Mechau's work.
If you've ever visited the Fine Arts Center, you've seen one of his masterpieces. Stretching across the eastern wall of the FAC's garden is Mechau's large-scale fresco, "Wild Horses," commissioned by the FAC when the building opened in 1936.
"Mechau's significant experience in France was with high Modernism (he and his family lived in France from 1929-1932)," says FAC Chief Curator Blake Milteer. "His encounter with fresco painting, specifically the murals of Piero della Francesca, was in Italy. Imagine him working with the wet plaster, as artists had for centuries."
The show, which occupies two spacious galleries in the FAC's 2006 addition, includes more than 50 examples of Mechau's work, ranging from pencil sketches to large-scale oils.
The pièce de résistance of the exhibition greets you as you enter the gallery: the sublimely beautiful "Indian Fight," executed in 1936 and funded by the Treasury Relief Art Project of the federal government.
It's epic in scale, ambition and subject. Against a fantastical landscape of cliffs and canyons, five horsemen battle with spears, bows and arrows and a pistol. Four are Native Americans, one European. Everything is in motion — the rearing horses, desperate combatants, drawn bow, leveled spear. Even the landscape seems animated and alive, thanks to Mechau's vibrant colors and strange geometries.
At 5 feet by 12 feet, "Indian Fight" overwhelms the viewer, growing in depth and complexity as you approach. It's also unsettling in its symbolic depiction of the 19th century conquest of the American West. It's not an easy painting to look at, this painterly and (at least to our eyes) romanticized view of a shameful time in our country's history. Yet despite its subject, it's a great painting. It's easy to understand why Edward Bruce, director of the 1930s federal Public Works Art Project, said, "Frank Mechau's work alone would have justified the entire PWAP program."
Along with "The Corral," a companion painting of the same size, "Indian Fight" was among 16 Colorado post office murals funded by Depression-era arts programs. Three were painted by Mechau, assisted by his students, twin sisters Jenne and Ethel Magafan and Jenne's lover, Eduardo Chavez. All became significant artists in their own right.
Both "The Corral" and "Indian Fight" were commissioned for the Colorado Springs downtown post office, where they hung for 25 years. A poorly conceived renovation so shrunk the building's public areas that the paintings were removed by the General Services Administration and stored in a massive D.C. warehouse. There they sat for decades, until eventually landing in the Denver Federal Courthouse complex. Indiana Jones, anyone?
Will the paintings ever make a triumphant return to Colorado Springs? Probably not, unless Mayor John Suthers, City Council, the FAC and the Pioneers Museum can persuade the GSA to release them from Denver captivity.
"Indian Fight" is the star of the show, but "Forest Fire" and "Wild Horse Race" are nearly as compelling. In the former, the landscape itself is in motion, with horse and riders dwarfed by swirling smoke and fire. Mechau perfectly captures the threat and beauty of Western wildfire, a subject that's all too familiar to residents of the Pikes Peak region.
"Wild Horse Race" depicts a once-popular rodeo attraction, wherein a dozen wild horses are released in the arena. In a letter to Henry Allen Moe, Mechau described the scene: "Teams of cowboys attempt to saddle the frantic creatures and ride them around the track. Complete chaos — horses plunge and pitch, men are flung and dragged, no two broncos go in the same direction ... what a drama of forms and forces, of colors and textures and a lightning line sewing the cyclone chaos together."
That's not only an apt description of the painting, but of Mechau's extraordinary body of art and of his generous, expansive and all-too-brief life of 42 years.
My mother Edith Farnsworth Hazlehurst was Mechau's contemporary, and knew him well.
"He was a wonderful guy," she told me 40 years after his death in 1946.
"And," she added with a smile, "he was the handsomest man I ever met."