Frederick Schwankovsky Biography

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Frederick John Vrain Schwankovsky (1885-1974) A painter and illustrator, Frederick Schwankovsky was from Detroit, where as a teenager, he worked in the family's piano business. He attended the Art Students League and the Pennsylvania Academy and moved to Southern California in 1917, where he painted stage scenery. From 1919 to 1947, he was head of the art department at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles and was an active member of the Laguna Beach Art Association. Later he moved to Humboldt County, where he died in 1974.

From an article on Jackson Pollock by L. Proyect:

However, the biggest influence on young Jackson Pollock was Frederick Schwankovsky, his art teacher in Manual Arts high school in Los Angeles. Schwankovsky was a partisan of the Communist Party as well as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, whose latest avatar was Jiddu Krishna, a.k.a. Krishnamurti. This is not such an odd combination, when you examine the 19th century radical movement whose influence lingered on into the 20th century, especially in Los Angeles, where the Pollock family lived. Why California has been a magnet for such cults is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say at this point that spiritualism of the Blavatsky sort went hand in hand with woman's suffrage, anti-racism, utopian socialism, etc. in the 1870s and 80s. Victoria Woodhull, leader of the first Marxist group in the United States, and who ran for president with Frederic Douglass as her running-mate, was a professional spiritualist.

California Watercolor

Grove Dictionary of Art-Jackson Pollock

He was the youngest of five sons and in his first 16 years moved 9 times with his family between California and Arizona. In 1928 he settled in Los Angeles, where he studied at the Manual Arts High School under the painter and illustrator Frederick John de St Vrain Schwankowsky. He learned the rudiments of art and learned about European and Mexican modernism. His teacher introduced him to the doctrines of Theosophy and of its former messiah, Jiddu Krishnamurti, which prepared Pollock, who had been brought up as an agnostic, to be open to contemporary spiritual concepts: the unconscious, Carl Gustav Jung’s analytical psychology and Surrealist automatism.

Schwankovsky: Permanent collection- Laguna Art Museum

California Watercolor

From the book-“On the Edge of America”

California Modernist Art, 1900-1950

Edited by Paul J. Karlstrom

University of California Press

California experimental film and visual music clearly inspired new underground, independent, personal, and/or avant-garde work in film in both New York and Europe. But another influence, which I have already alluded to, may link New York abstract expressionist gestural painting to Southern California. Jackson Pollock first studied art at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, 1928-30. His teacher there, Frederick Schwankovsky, had a powerful mystically oriented personality, which displayed itself in frequent lectures, radio broadcasts, newspaper articles, and exhibitions in Los Angeles.[30]

Schwankovsky's devotion to Theosophy and Krishnamurti formed an integral part of his artwork and his teaching. In his brilliant painting Modern Music (Fig. 90), from about 1914, we can see a relationship with the hermetic color-music theories of other theosophically inspired painters (e.g., Franti‰ek Kupka, in his Piano Keys—Lake , 1909). But even a novice, with no knowledge of that tradition—like Pollock, perhaps, when he saw the painting (it remained in Schwankovsky's possession until 1940)—can appreciate the sense of dynamic color expressing inner perceptions and emotions. The woman playing the piano while pentangles of color arise from the keys might well be Schwankovsky's wife, Nelly, who would play certain notes on the piano while "Schwanny" (as Pollock affectionately called him) would paint the corresponding colors, a living visual music performance.

Schwankovsky published a booklet, which he distributed to his students, explaining the mystical qualities of colors and the correspondences between colors, musical notes, emotional propensities, and astrological signs.[31] He generously introduced his students to as much mystical theory as possible: he drove Pollock to Ojai to hear Krishnamurti speak and took groups of students to visit Manly P. Hall's Philosophical Research Society library of rare hermetic incunabula and grimoires. At the same time, Schwankovsky introduced his students to a variety of art techniques, encouraging experiments mixing oils, water, and alcohol. And in his scenic design classes, which built sets for local theatrical productions, he taught the students (including Pollock) to lay canvas on the ground and dance around it, dripping and splattering paint to create starscapes and tropical lianas.

What Pollock learned from Schwankovsky in California made him see things differently in New York. During the early 1930s, while Pollock studied at the Art Students League, he often went to visit Thomas Wilfred's studio (named Institute of Light), where he sat for hours watching the gradual trajectories of colored light in Wilfred's Lumia compositions, swinging his head around to follow as if he recognized the trajectories as Wilfred's gestures. In 1943, when he was working for Baroness Rebay at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, he saw the Fischinger films, which were screened regularly, and probably Dockum's MobilColor Projections as well. When James Whitney had screenings at the museum in late 1944 and early 1945, Tony Smith (who before leaving Los Angeles had done some remarkable poured and dripped paintings, possibly in rapport with Knud Merrild's flux paintings) took his new buddy Pollock to see them. These repeated, reinforcing exposures to the kinetic abstraction of visual music (mostly from California), in which gestures of light splash, ooze, and layer across the large screen, must have contributed to Jackson Pollock's crucial change from semirepresentational easel painting to large nonobjective canvases created by expressionistic gestures of the painter.

California Watercolor