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Doris Rosenthal: Desire and Repose

I went the other day to Fullerton (not so far from where I live) to the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, the home (in 1924) of the Muckenthaler family, built on the brow of a long ridge from which the Muckenthalers could have seen miles of citrus groves and the steel-blue Pacific below and beyond.

The "Orange Empire" is tract houses now. The sea is not nearly as present from the tiled steps in front of the house, which became a museum in the 1960s and event space as well, known for garden weddings as art shows. I went there to see an exhibition of paintings -- mostly her personal collection -- by Doris Rosenthal. The exhibition will be up until April 4.

Doris Rosenthal (ca.1895-1971) had been one of the most successful painters in the United States in the 1940s, profiled in Life magazine in 1943, her works widely discussed and collected, and something of a celebrity for her daring. She tramped on her own in southern Mexico with only her sketchbooks, paints, and easel. A woman in her early 50s, Jewish, and living in conservative rural Mexico for months at a time, and recording her immersion in the daily life of remote villages.

Rosenthal's notes suggest that few if any of her subjects had posed before. Some had never seen a painter at work or even met an Anglo woman. She laughingly wrote later that she had to claim to be a Hollywood talent scout to get the demure girls of one village to pose. (That kind of pitch is a part of the Los Angeles story, too.)

Although Rosenthal was understood in her own time (and perhaps held in less esteem) as a painter of domestic scenes -- a woman at a hand-cranked sewing machine in the exhibition is beautifully rendered -- there's a great deal more beyond genre and scene in Rosenthal's paintings at the Muckenthaler.

Women Resting
Women Resting | Doris Rosenthal, Muckenthaler Cultural Center | Author's photo

Rosenthal's bravery -- and her sense of humor -- arrives triumphantly in one painting. In the courtyard of an inn (grandly named Gran Hotel Paris), muleteers are harnessing horses and pack mules at dawn. A row of military rifles leans against the hotel railing; there may be bandits. At the edge of the scene, framed by light in the courtyard's gateway, Rosenthal rides in on a burro, straight-backed, white-haired, an artist's palette an incongruous shield in her hand, another Boadicea (or maybe Don Quixote).

The 25 or so paintings (and even more lithographs) at the Muckenthaler have a romantic story of their own -- traveling a rough journey from Oaxaca after Rosenthal's death, to storage in Hawai'i and back to the mainland. (Some of this shows even after careful restoration of the paintings.)

Romance complicates these paintings, just as romance complicates (and often obscures) the stories told of southern California. The lure of exoticism gets mixed in too. Los Angeles stood in relationship to Boston at the turn of the 20th century as Oaxaca did to Los Angeles fifty years later. "Semi-tropical" Los Angeles and tropical Mexico have connections through the images of desire they manifested, beginning in Rosenthal's childhood in Riverside and early training in Los Angeles.

In Rosenthal's paintings -- seen through 21st century sensibilities -- some of the desire can seem like appropriation, even though Mexican artists before and after Rosenthal painted the same sort of village scenes. Some of the desire seems like Gauguin's European "tropicalism" -- an outsider's regard for the southern and humid and uncultivated -- even though Rosenthal also drew scenes from big city life that are as frankly sensual.

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Interpreters of Southern California have wandered into the same complications of desire. If most middle- and working-class immigrants came here because there were jobs to be found and the climate was better than Davenport, Iowa, some immigrants did come because they were lured by images much like Doris Rosenthal's.

Not all of the paintings Rosenthal kept around her were domestic -- or even domesticated. Some of them, from this side of the canvas at least, are evocations of heat, languor, and erotic possibility.

Rosenthal's reclining women -- some sleeping, unaware; others regarding the painter -- are knowing variations on the odalisques that Matisse painted in the south of France in the 1920s, when Rosenthal was completing her training in Paris. That Rosenthal's paintings of women lying at leisure, bathing in a stream, or posed full length on a balustrade were done by a woman painter extends the complications even further.

The best of Rosenthal's paintings and lithographs at the Muckenthaler are technically accomplished, seductively beautiful, and problematic. The pictures delight but they also challenge the viewer to consider the uses of romance and exoticism and -- for me, at least -- the ways in which the beautiful and the seductive have been put to use in creating an image of Los Angeles.

Not long ago, Los Angeles was America's city of tropical languor, bodies in repose, and promise. Doris Rosenthal captured that lush sensibility along with its many uncertainties.

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