Excerpted from August F. Biehle, Jr, Ohio Landscapes by Rotraud Sackerlotzky
. . . [August] Biehle was part of the "Cleveland School," a group of modernists who dominated the scene in Cleveland during the first half of the [20th century]. He produced a large volume of work which often reveals his experiments with different styles, including Art Nouveau, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism. Art Nouveau was his first and most important influence, Post- Impressionism helped to brighten his palette, and Cubism dominated his later abstract works. . . .
During a three-year apprenticeship with his father, August F. Biehle, Sr., a master decorator who had emigrated to the United States from Germany, August F. Biehle, Jr., learned commercial drawing and painting, the cutting of stencils for wall decorations, and mural painting. In 1903, when he was 18, the young Biehle set out for Europe to further his education. Like most young American artists of that time, he went to Paris. However, he soon moved on to Munich where he was more familiar with the country's language and customs. As a trained decorator, he was able to enroll at the Munich Kunstgewerbeschule, a progressive school for arts and crafts. . . .
August F. Biehle, Jr., returned to Cleveland in 1905 and went to work in Youngstown, Ohio, as a decorator. In 1910, however--as soon as he had saved enough money--he returned to Germany, this time to study at the Munich Kunstakademie, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. . . . He studied at the Royal Academy for one year. . . .
Most of Biehle's teachers during his formative years in Germany were part of the Art Nouveau movement. They were concerned with abstracting nature into simple, flat shapes to make them easily recognizable and printable. This style gave their art a certain poster-like appearance. For Biehle this decorative linearism, emphasizing flat geometric shapes and evenly applied colors, formed a method which he continued to use intermittently throughout most of his life. . . .
There were many more influences and stimuli for the young August Biehle in Munich which should be noted. Munich was the center of German artistic activity at the fin-de-siecle and during the early 20th century. The city attracted artists from all over Europe, especially from Austria, Switzerland, Scandanavia, and Russia. . . . In 1910, the recently formed Neue Kunstlervereinigung (NKV) showed works by the younger generation of artists in Germany as well many international revolutionaries, including the French Fauves (Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Andre Derain), and the Cubists (Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque).
In 1911, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc formed a group they named Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) and in December held their first exhibition in Munich to which they invited German artists such as Gabriele Munter and August Macke, and French artists Henri Rousseau and Robert Delaunay. The second Blaue Reiter exhibition a few months later showed graphic works by many more Parisian painters and other artists from all parts of Germany, including the works of another expressionist group Die Brucke, from Dresden. . . . Within a year's time, Biehle was to begin to experiment in sketches with new colors and designs.
After his return to the United States later in 1912, August F. Biehle, Jr. settled in Cleveland and worked until 1913 as color artist and demonstrator at Sherwin-Williams Company. That year, he started a new career in commercial lithography. Until his retirement in 1952, he worked as lithographer at Otis Lithograph Company, which later became W.J. Morgan and in 1929, moved to the new Continental Lithograph Company as a poster designer. There he was known as a "black" artist, which meant he did the "key" drawing on the lithographic stone with a black tusche crayon. He made posters, billboard ads, and designed theatre marquees. However, Biehle never gave up his own work, continually painting and drawing portraits, still lifes, and especially landscapes.
The artistic climate in Cleveland was quite stimulating as most artists were aware of the modern trends in Europe. Like other American artists at the turn of the century, many Cleveland artists studied abroad for considerable lengths of time, either in France, which was considered the center of modern art activity, or in Germany, which was more appealing to artists with a German background, such as Biehle. For example, Henry Keller (1869-1949), a teacher at the Cleveland School of Art, studied and traveled extensively in Germany, Italy, Spain, and even Algiers. William Sommer (1867-1949), Biehle's friend and co-worker at the Otis Lithograph Company, had been to England and Germany for an extended period of time. William Zorach (1889-1966) experienced Fauvism and Cubism first hand in Paris, returning to Cleveland around 1912. Abel Warshawsky (1883-1962) lived most of his life as an expatriate in Paris, but exhibited his Impressionist paintings periodically in Cleveland. Most of these artists were familiar with Art Nouveau and innovations of Cezanne and the other Post-Impressionists. There was a wealth of knowledge among them to be shared and applied after their return home.
Biehle met many of these artists at the Kokoon Arts Club, a club for the avant-garde of Cleveland founded in 1911 by William Sommer and Carl Moellmann. Artists who had to work during the day gathered at the Kokoon Club in the evening to draw and paint. The club provided models and space for periodic exhibitions. But most importantly, these artists inspired one another. They analyzed the new ideas they had acquired on different trips abroad; they were supportive of daring new concepts and discussed artistic problems. Henry Keller, a prominent artist in Cleveland, admired teacher and leader of the "Cleveland School," was a member of the club.
About 1913, Biehle's style changed. His colors became brighter and less descriptive, and he began to translate the object into rythmic patterns. . . . During 1913, his sketch books show him experimenting with brilliant, pure hues in landscapes similar to those of Kandinsky in his early period. Several sketches of corn shocks, woods, and buildings are composed of brilliant pinks, lemon yellows, and cadmium oranges.
Biehle's drawings and paintings of city scenes of about 1913 also show a development toward a more expressionistic style. Biehle seems to have used every free minute for sketching, whether he was at home or at work. . . .
The city of Cleveland as subject matter appears often in Biehle's oeuvre. . . . Urban scenes, and factories in particular, were a popular American subject in the 1920s and 1930s, as seen for example in the 'modernist' paintings of factories and machines by the so-called Precisionist painters, Charles Sheeler and George Ault. However, Biehle represented factories and industrial buildings differently than the Precisionists who emphasized immaculate, pristine forms. Observing more with the eyes of a realist, he showed smoke and pollution in the air, as well as the reflection of the buildings in the rippled water of the Cuyahoga River. . . .
Some of Biehle's cityscapes seem more closely related to those of another group of American Realists, Philadelphia and New York artists known both as the Eight and the Ash Can school. These included most prominently, Robert Henri and John Sloan. Like them, Biehle used broad brushstrokes to paint real places where real people lived. . . .
August F. Biehle's constant drive to learn, and his practice of painting outdoors, led him to join Henry Keller's "summer school" in Berlin Heights, Ohio, from 1919 to 1921. At an old farmhouse west of Cleveland, which had been the Keller family's summer residence for several years, students came together to paint outdoors and to partake of Keller's criticism . . . . Biehle did many watercolors of the quarry, the pond, farmland scenes, the view toward the lake, and the view at the shore. He also did corn shocks, barns, and doorways.
Typical of the works of both these men [Keller and Biehle] is the blue outline around forms. While Biehle outlined his shapes either in black or in a local color in his German landscapes, in Berlin Heights he began to use blue line. Taking his ideas from Cezanne, Keller suggested . . . the employment of a blue or violet contour to ouline objects for which an artist wanted to "give the impression of rotundity or projection" without shading. He also explained, "when a line is a blue one and prevailing hue of the color field which it borders tends toward yellow, a synthetic grey will result at a certain distance, thus creating the impression that some space exists between the object and its surroundings."
His experience with Keller seems to have enabled Biehle to put into practice ideas first encountered through the Scholle and Neu-Dachau groups and later through his interest in the Blaue Reiter. In his Berlin Heights works, he combined German emotion with the scientific spirit. . . .
These works seem to reflect August Biehle's devotion to the landscape; their tenor stems from the joy of being in love. During the month of August, 1921, Biehle met his future bride, Mary Wessler, vacationing at Berlin Heights. Many postcards to her, with painted messages instead of words, express his delight in the sunrise, the sunset, in flowers, fruits, the fields, the forest, and the beach. One postcard he ended with a German proverb: Was man aus Liebe tut, geht noch mal so gut (What you do out of love, turns out twice as well).
The bulk of Biehle's Zoar work seems to have been done between 1918 and 1921. Zoar, a quaint village on the Tuscarawas River about 60 miles south of Cleveland--and then far from the main highways--kept its rural charm and traditions for a very long time. The village was first settled by a society of German Lutheran Separatists from Wurttemberg in 1817. They named their town Zoar, a place of refuge, because in the Bible Lot had sought refuge at Zoar from the destruction of Sodom.
. . . By 1898, the society had dissolved and the communal property was divided. However, the hotel prospered, giving good service to people who wanted to flee city life. Many artists from Cleveland came to Zoar to paint the beautiful landscape and charming houses. Other artists of German heritage like Biehle, such as Adam Lehr, F.C. Gottwald, and George Adomeit, found Zoar an especially captivating place to paint while exploring their own traditions.
. . . In his Zoar pictures, he captured on canvas and paper locations which had been important for the life of the old village: the fields and gardens, the apple trees, the quarry, the mill, the kilns, and especially the old houses with their red-tiled roofs.
Some of Biehle's Zoar paintings . . . are reminiscent of works he had done in Germany. . . . He used watercolor and added details and outlines with crayon or pencil, but his pencil marks are more fluent and the contour lines looser than in his Munich and Dachau sketches. A new concern for light is also apparent in his work . . . .
Beginning in about 1935, August F. Biehle, Jr.'s work became even more decorative and simultaneously more abstract. A latent interest in Cubism seems to have surfaced. He began to break up shapes into colored planes, fusing them with lines into interesting designs . . . . Because of their bright colors these paintings appear to have more in common with the Blaue Reiter artist Franz Marc's late paintings than with Picasso's Cubism. A close look at Biehle's work, however, reveals once again Biehle's intentions contrasting with those of Marc, who had adopted the methods of the Futurists and Delaunay's Orphism to express a pantheistic ideology. . . . Biehle's diagonal lines, unlike Marc's, neither shatter the objects nor do they penetrate them. His lines are part of a pattern which he superimposed onto the original drawing without distorting the realistic background. . . .
As we have seen, the inherently decorative quality of August Biehle's art was further emphasized by his continued use of the curvilinear line which he had adopted from the Jugendstil. Often he extended the contours of curving objects beyond their boundaries into an arabesque of lines which connect and weave intricate patterns. It seems that eventually curvilinearity encouraged Biehle to break up objects. . . .
. . . Biehle's landscapes best reflect the various influences which he assimilated in his art, including his German heritage and education, the impact of Cleveland's artistic community and the influence of other American and European artists in whose work he was interested. . . . All of his landscapes, from his earlier Jugenstil-influenced work to the late abstractions, express Biehle's first and original love for producing beautiful and decorative paintings.