|Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli -click images for larger view|
To begin, the story of Alfonso Iannelli is a portrait of the American immigrant experience. Late in the 19th century, his shoemaker father had left Andretta, Italy to seek his fortune in the United States, and a few years later was secure enough to bring over the rest of the family, including ten-year-old Alfonso. Soon, Alfonso was studying art in New York, and in 1906 he became an apprentice to Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who would later go on to create Mount Rushmore.
(click to watch on YouTube in a larger window)
According to the Tim Samuelson, Chicago's official Cultural Historian and the curator of the exhibition, young Alfonso was ripe for assimilating Borglum's philosophy, which was all “about the idea that America has to to find its own artistic voice.”
“Iannelli,” says Samuelson, “was very much an advocate of collaboration in all things, that society was full of strong individuals who work together to create a harmonious society. He believed in the idea of democracy. I think this all came out of his immigrant experience - the freedom of the individual to create out of himself, but then the ability of the individual to have interactions with like-minded individuals.”
The Iannelli Studios had gotten a commission to do posters - at $5.00 a piece - for the Orpheum vaudeville theater in downtown Los Angeles.
The posters got the attention of Frank Lloyd Wright's son, John, and in 1914, Alfonso accepted an invitation to come to Chicago to work with Wright on Midway Gardens, at 60th and Cottage Grove. During the five months he was away, Margaret continued work on the posters, and the designs began to show more of her artistic influence. “ She was looking at Art Nouveau,”, says Samuelson. “She was looking at Secession. Especially if you look at the Orpheum posters, there's nothing that's Wrightian in those at all. If there was an article in The International Studio on Japanese art, she tore it out and she'd file it away. The whole use of line and negative space, it's very much that.”
|Alfonso Iannelli, studies for Midway Garden sprites|
“They were never on the ground,” says Samuelson. They always looked down at you.”
The downturn at the start of World War I saw the gardens sold in 1916 to Edelweiss Brewing
click for larger view
The changes - and cheapening - gained only a temporary reprieve. Not even an appearance by the legendary Pavlova could save Midway Gardens from the ravages of Prohibition. It was demolished in 1929, bankrupting in the process two demolition companies who had underestimated the solidness of the construction, “Wright actually said he was happy to see it go.”
When the work at Midway Gardens was published, Iannelli was appalled to discover that Wright claimed all the credit for the sculptures himself. A contentious correspondance ensued, resulting in a rupture that precluded any further collaboration. When Alfonso returned to Los Angeles, however, the Orpheum posters ‘displayed a new aesthetic of geometric complexity deriving from Alfonso's experiences with Frank Lloyd Wright. Flat geometric areas of solid color predominated the designs, often contrasting with areas of gold and jet black.’ While both Ianelli's embraced strong geometries in their work, that of Alfonso tends to be harder and more abstract. Margaret's have more of a pulse of life.
At times she would erupt into episodes of rage. Periods of intense productivity alternated with times when she could make nothing at all. On occasion she would disappear for days.After a major breakdown in 1923, Margaret was institutionalized, first at a sanitarium in Wisconsin, then on farms in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. She continued to take on projects, but she never fully recovered, finally being committed to Elgin State Hospital in 1929, where she would remain 38 years - more than half her life. Her last works were a series of colorful illustrations for the hospital newsletter, painstakingly created by running the pages through the mimeograph once for each color. The last known issue to include her work was in 1948. “Details of Margaret's last nineteen years remain sealed in the medical records of the institution.” She died, two months after breaking her hip, on November 29, 1967. No one claimed her body. She was given a pauper's burial in an unmarked grave.
After Margaret was institutionalized, Alfonso began to take on studio assistants, including Edgar Miller, Bruce Goff, and Ruth Blackwell, who would also become his new life companion. His studio remained active during the 1930's, with a lot of work at the 1933/34 Century of Progress Exhibition. There were also the theaters - the Catlow in Barrington, and Pickwick in Park Ridge- but as the thirties came to a close, work dried up. (Be sure not to miss the arrow pasted on one of the Cultural Center gallery's high windows, pointing to the view towards Iannelli's last major commission.)
“The irony” says Samuelson, “is he was trying to be the voice of modernism, but to the new voices in modernism - the Institute of Design and Moholy and the movements of the 20th century -Iannelli's work was much too figurative. They were taking modernism into an entirely another direction.”
“In the end,” Samuelson says, ”there weren't many people seeking him out in the studio, and then suddenly he becomes the spokesperson for the Prairie School. Instead of people coming to discuss the new trends and the philosophies of modernism and life, almost everyone was coming to talk to him about Frank Lloyd Wright and 1914.” His last known poster was for an exhibition of the work of Adler and Sullivan at the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, the former K.A.M Synagogue that burned to the bare walls in a 2006 fire.
purchased by the Kalo Foundation and has now been preserved as The Iannelli Studios Heritage Center.
2013 is a year of discovery for the Iannelli's. In addition to the show at the Cultural Center, next month will see the publication of Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design, a lavishly illustrated monograph by David Jameson.
Samuelson is a master storyteller, and in the Iannelli's, he has a great story to tell. First, the Americanization of Alfonso - how, even before he came here, he was shaped by American culture, and soaked up its values and reshaped them with his own work. And then, Margaret's story, which the Pritzker Prize's announcement that it will not redress its slight of Denise Scott Brown makes especially timely. Samuelson's wall text lays out the story of Alfonso and Margaret in compelling and illuminating detail. Hints are placed as to who was the dominant designer in certain works, but the observer is also often left to decide for themselves.
There is no question that the backstory of the rediscovery of Margaret and her role in the work of the Iannelli Studio lends a special poignancy to the exhibition. Ultimately, however, the art must stand for itself, and here, it does. This would be a great show even if the walls were bare of text.
It's a very sweeping display of many types of work, from graphics to sculpture, architectural renderings and ornament, illustrations, advertisements, furniture and even Iannelli's industrial work, including a patented design for a blender's glass container.
|Tim Samuelson and appliances designed by Alfonso Iannelli|
Modernism's Messengers: The Art of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli, in the 2nd floor Chicago Rooms of the Chicago Cultural Center, continues through August 27.