Carefully tucked away on the shelves and in the darkened crannies of the international artist, Paul Harmon’s atelier lays the final estate of another artist. For over two decades Paul has been the sole caretaker and archivist of the work of his friend and early influence, the enigmatic Eugene Vitalis Biel-Bienne. Once regarded as one of Europe’s most promising expressionistic artists, Biel’s memory is now lost to all but a few of his last surviving friends and interested Austrian-German scholars. His work currently is largely unknown.
So how did the work of a major artist whose resume of exhibitions includes the names of some of the world’s greatest museums end up in the studio buildings of a residence in Brentwood? The story of Biel is as fascinating as the art itself. It gives credence to the adage that art indeed does reflect life.Born, Egon V. Biel, on November 27, 1902 in Vienna, Austria. His parents were of Franco-Swiss heritage. In his conversations with a younger Paul Harmon, Biel’s childhood recollections were full of fondness. Vienna at the advent of the Twentieth Century was a cultural milieu and Biel as the son of Austria’s ambassador to Japan was in the perfect position to absorb it all. Vienna, awash with intellectual fervor, was quickly becoming the unrivaled center for cultural activity. Luminaries such as Freud, Mahler, Klimt, Loos, Meis van der Rohe, Hoffman, Herzl, Schoenberg and others were creating new schools of thought in such fields as psychoanalysis, linguistic philosophy, atonal music, art, urban planning, and modern Zionism. Biel’s fertile mind thrived in such a rich environment. After attending the Vienna Academy of Art under the tutelage of professor Rollo, he continued his training at the Universities of Vienna and Cologne, which culminated in his being awarded a doctorate in art history. Upon graduation he frequented both Vienna and Paris quickly becoming friends with the important artists of the day. Influenced by the teachings of Freud, Biel’s form of expressionism quickly found favor among the critics. Major galleries throughout Europe were soon exhibiting his art. Renown museums such as the National Gallery of Berlin, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museo De Arte Contemporaneo in Madrid, the Belvedere in Vienna, the Musee’ Nationale D’Art Moderne in Paris collected his work. The stunning success of his 1936 show at the prestigious Wildenstein in Paris caused the publication “La Liberte” to conclude; “Biel’s fecundity and imagination equal Picasso’s: his intensity too. One thinks also of the great tradition, of Daumier, of Forain; but one realizes soon that one is confronted with a unique artist.”
Beside his talents as an artist, Biel was an effective writer. He not only wrote articles respected for their literary content, his commanding voice made him a sought after radio commentator.
Unfortunately underneath Vienna’s explosion of newfound liberal intellectualism lay dark underpinnings. In 1916, Franz Joseph, the last of the great leaders of the Hapsburg Monarchy, passed away and within two years the dynasty crumbled forever, leaving Austria awash in a leaderless bureaucratic nightmare. For a while, the citizens of Austria felt empowered by their newfound freedom and a democratic government soon emerged. However, a failing economy and bitter infighting between the numerous political factions soured the political process and resulted in a strong disillusionment for party politics. As Camelot started to falter, the Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe were held as scapegoats for all that was wrong and an imputable veil of anti-Semitism covered the country. In 1933 the democracy was replaced with an autocracy, which had serious leanings towards Hitler’s Nazi movements.The rise of anti-Semitism and the duplicitous activity of authoritarian politics outraged Biel’s sense of morality and he responded with vitriolic radio commentaries while drawing scathing caricatures of the Nazi elite. On the day of the Anschluss, March, 12,1938, when Hitler declared Austria a province of Germany, Biel was forced to flee for his life, losing everything including his two children. Via a dangerous trek through Czechoslovakia, Biel bravely made his way to Paris. While many artists in Paris showed pusillanimity and shied away from political action against the war’s daily horrors, Biel’s outrage could not be silenced and he agreed to continue his radio commentary against the Hitler regime.
His art portrayed the darkness he held in his heart. When a selection of his drawings was shown at the prestigious Marie Harriman Gallery in New York, one reviewer described the artist as “profoundly troubled by the confusions and uncertainties of the war.” Referencing a drawing titled, Under Starry Sky, the article counseled: “is not an effort at romance, but a sorry attempt at suicide by a wretch who presses a pistol to his temple, and ‘Paris’ is not a gay scene, but instead a tragic reunion in the slums with a defeated young woman and an equally defeated old man. It is almost too much tragedy that one would prefer not to know about. But Mr. Biel, the artist, has style, and cloaks his sorrowful comments in soft tones that would have not been despised by Whistler.”
When Paris fell, the Gestapo raided the radio station and Biel once again was forced to flee and once again tragedy ensued. Having made it to the south of France, Biel enlisted in the French Resistance Army. His wife, Hertha Marie (Mary), trying to escape by car from Orleans with her husband’s art, was strafed by the Luftwaffe and she received such serious back injuries that she was crippled for the rest of her life. The following years were desperate with the two of them living near starvation. Because of Biel’s reputation as a gifted artist, his name was placed on the list of President Roosevelt’s Emergency Committee of scholars, writers and artists at the insistence of Mrs. Averill Harriman.
For nearly two years the Biels’ application for immigration lay awash in a sea of bureaucracy. Despite repeated letters of urgency from many prominent and influential sources, the government agency still balked. Knowing that Mary’s injuries were serious and irreparable, there was concern that upon her arrival in the US she would become a ward of the state and the war-taxed government would have to assume her expensive medical and physical care. It was not until Biel’s cousin, a certified physician in New York city, wrote repeated assurances that he personally would oversee Mary’s care, that the committee finally relented. All the while the Biels subsisted on tiny stipends provided them by the American Guild for Cultural Freedom and war relief groups such as the Quakers. During the entire ordeal Biel stayed steadfastly by the side of his ailing, wife, attending to her day and night.
Arrival in the States in 1942 offered protection from the Nazis, but did little to abate their life of hardship. They occupied a cramped one-room apartment, lost within the labyrinth of New York City, where there was barely enough room for the two of them to live let alone make art. However, Biel’s creative spirit could not be contained, and after four years of being on the run, he resumed his role of artist.
While in Paris, Biel became interested in work of Kandinksy and began experimenting on his own along the lines of the abstract movement known as non objectivism. In 1943, Biel’s images caught the attention of the Baroness Hilla Rebay, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation and one of Kandinsky’s greatest champions. She noticed Kandinsky’s influence and offered Biel a grant.
Hilla Reby, also an artist, is quite a story herself. Born in 1890, the daughter of a Prussian general, she moved to Berlin after graduating from art school. She became the lover of Rudolf Bauer, whose work along with that of Kandinsky influenced her vision of modern art. In 1925, she met and became Solomon R. Guggenheim’s lover as well. In 1927, she moved to New York and as part of her insistence for continuing their relationship, she convinced Guggenheim and his wife Irene to amass a large collection of modern art. This became the basis of the Guggenheim Museum of which she became the Foundation’s first director and curator. She was strong willed and confidant and Biel became reticent to her demanding rhetoric and a somewhat contentious relationship evolved. If not for Mary Biel’s intervention with solicitous letters of appreciation, it is doubtful the funding would have continued. The Baroness developed a genuine fondness for Mary and gave her artistic endeavors funding through the Foundation as well. She also paid for some of Mary’s medical expenses personally and offered the couple a summer residence at her house in Connecticut thinking the fresh air would aid Mary’s recovery. In the end, Biel’s talent fueled the Guggenheim’s extension of an unprecedented second grant and the scholarships lasted for eight years. This was an honor offered no other artist at the time. Throughout this period, his work was included in a number significant group shows at the museum featured next to the work of other renown artists such as Modigliani, Seurat, Mondrian, Chagall, Klee and of course Kandinsky and Bauer.Later, Biel felt he had assimilated all he could from the non objective movement and began working in a more autonomous and highly intense style of art. He reexamined his early roots steeped in his studies of philosophy and Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis. He resumed his figure studies exploring the darker morasses of the human condition, paralleling subjects so often detailed in Nietzsche’s writings.
In 1946 he taught history and art at Fordham University, a position that lasted until 1953. During this interim, he also lectured the City College of New York, the Parsons School of Design, and The New School for Social Research. His association with Fordham was significant because the additional income allowed him to not only care for his wife but he at last had enough funds for a studio space as well. In the winter of 1953, Biel staged a major exhibit at the Wehe gallery in New York. The show warranted coverage in such notable publications as Art News, The New York Times, and Art Digest.
In 1954 the couple moved to Caracas, Venezuela so Mary could be close to her sister, Martha Ertl. There his work was well received and exhibited numerous times at the Museo De Arte Contemporaneo De Caracas. During a retrospective exhibit at the museum in 1978, a reporter commented: “There is in every assured stroke and line of Egon Biel-Bienne’s drawings something that speaks of the unseen threads of existence…. One man’s perseverance and endeavor to see beyond appearances has left a vision, inexhaustible and as in a moment of life – endless…. The Artist’s sense of wonder is always present. With the simplicity of his masterful technique, he captures human expressions in endless variety.”
After nearly two years in Caracas, Biel accepted the position of Director of the French-American Art Institute and returned to the states with Mary to live in Washington DC.
As part of his duties he traveled frequently to Paris resuming relationships with his old friends. Unfortunately, Mary passed away in the early months of 1959. Her death was more than he could handle and all he wanted was out. He wanted to get as far away from New York and Washington as possible. He heard of an opening for an assistant professor of fine arts at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and applied.
When Walter Sharp, the Chair of Vanderbilt’s art department, received Biel’s application, he couldn’t believe his eyes. On the cover were letters of recommendation from some of the most revered artists of the time, including Picasso, Léger, and Chagall. At first Sharp was convinced he was the victim of a hoax. Angered, he almost threw the application in the trash and was only comfortable with its authenticity after he set about looking for the perpetrator. Shortly thereafter, Biel made his way to Tennessee and to Vanderbilt.
One of the first people he met in Nashville was Ann Street, the well-known portrait artist, who was also Walter Sharp’s cousin. Immediately, Biel asked her to pose for a painting and for the next four weeks he spent almost every night at her and her husband Bob’s house painting. The finished portrait is remarkable because it not only captures Ms Street’s stunning beauty but also, as in all his images, offers an insight into the artist’s mind as well. Here he transforms the subject into a mystical sylph giving her the torso of a mermaid, while replacing her feet with what seems to be peacock feathers. He then surrounds her body in a sea of vivid reds: alizarin, vermillion, crimson, cerise, and scarlet. Then he adds just enough cadmium oranges and yellows to ensure the viewer knows this is a romantic picture. He leaves no room for anarchy, sarcasm or irony to hide leering in the shadows here. This is quite a departure from the spirit of his earlier work leading the viewer to believe Biel had high hopes for his new life in Nashville.
A friendship evolved between Ann and Biel that continued until his death and for that matter still lingers on till this day. A number of other people within Nashville’s creative community befriended Biel as well. Among them was Paul Harmon who said it was a life changing experience in meeting Gene Biel. “As an artist and painter, he was the real thing. With his personal knowledge, he brought many of the modern and contemporary European masters to life.” His students at Vanderbilt primarily felt the same way. In fact they adored him, many calling Biel the best teacher they ever had. In an extremely flattering article in The Vanderbilt Hustler magazine entitled, “Biel-The Emotional Approach To Art” the writer quotes a number of students who all reiterate a statement made by Judy Rodenhauser. “Dr. Biel doesn’t just teach names, dates, and places. He inspires you. He wants you to learn to really love what is beautiful in art and to be able to make critical judgments. He is the finest teacher I have ever had.”Ironically the article was published in the spring of 1965. The year Vanderbilt let him go. When Ann Street was asked to describe him, she said she remembered him as tall (he was 6’3”), assertive, and opinionated. It was the fact that he demanded sovereignty over his opinion and his finding most departmental rules and requests too much of a nuisance to follow that led to his firing. Unfortunately, he no longer had his life’s companion, Mary, to smooth things over with her charm. Ann Street remembers Walter Sharp coming to her house in the middle of the day and acting upset in a way she had never seen him before. Asked what was wrong, Walter exclaimed; “you never know your limits until you have been pushed beyond them. Biel has just exceeded my limits!” However, along with his conceit, Biel also possessed a great wit which when coupled with his intellect many found quite endearing. Within a 1965 interview conducted by the Nashville Magazine, he treats the reader to all three; wit, arrogance and intelligence. The answer to the magazine’s first question is only a small sampling of what was to transpire. Q-“Dr. Biel-Bienne, would you mind answering questions, or would you rather tell in your own way…. A. “I do not mind answering questions. However, it is my habit to question answers. And don’t you worry that I will not tell you in my own way whatever I tell you. Not a chance I will use somebody else’s way.” Besides offering a discourse on semantics, Biel revealed his fondness for living in Nashville. It was not a place of exile one might expect but instead he found the city very pleasant especially when compared to New York. That city, he called “an overgrowth of everything and therefore a monstrosity. A city only good for empty souls looking for distraction.”
Biel spent the remaining years of his life writing and painting in his one bedroom apartment overlooking the Parthenon, retaining his friends but for the most part staying out of the eyes of society. Paul Harmon remembers he had painted his bedroom black so he could sleep whenever he wanted. Other than basic furniture, all Biel had in his bedroom was a painting he had made of his wife in her funeral shroud and had hung over his bed. He continued to have exhibitions, mainly in Nashville and Caracas, up until his death in the winter of 1969. Following his passing a number of cities, including Nashville, hosted retrospectives. In 1987, his work was selected for inclusion in a group show at the Pompidou in Paris, which celebrated Austrian artists. After that near silence.
So how does a man who the New York Times once called one of the most significant painters on the continent and who was also considered by many to be a war hero and gifted writer end up in near obscurity? His name is so forgotten, even the city that hosted him for the last ten years of his life shows little remembrance of him. Hamilton Hazlehurst, Walter Sharps’ successor as Chair of the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Department, responded this way: “ artist’s reputations are like yo-yos. Sometimes they’re rising and sometimes they’re down.”. Maybe, with just the right tug, Biel’s sphere of recognition can be put on a more positive track.
By John Guider
Paul Harmon Recollects
Understand, I had grown up being a regular visitor in my painter grandmother’s working studio, and I had a small room at home that I painted in. This, however, was completely different. This was an energy-charged environment totally designed for painting. The refrigerator, stove, and bed were simply necessary to be able to continue the very serious business of making art.
That evening, Biel showed me perhaps forty large and powerful paintings, the images of which stay with me even today. Often when I am having a particularly difficult time with a canvas, I ask myself, what would Biel do? He would say, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “Think very, very deeply,” and then add seriously, “and trust your intuition.”
In all of those years of talking about art, Biel never instructed me on putting paint on canvas. More importantly, he showed me what an artist is.