Emil J. Bisttram

Emil Bisttram (1895-1976)

Hungarian born, Emil Bisttram became one of the Southwest’s leading painters and teachers. He was a founder of the Transcendental Art movement in New Mexico, devoted to themes exploring and promoting universal meaning that included idealistic forms and colors that suggested sounds. Best known as an abstract painter, his style ranged from the classic regionalism of the 1930s, to abstractions based on the dynamic symmetry theories he learned from Jay Hambidge, utilizing Roerich’s Russian mysticism. Bisttram would often speak of his association with Nicholas Roerich at the Master Institute in New York City, citing a story where the Russian master handed him a handful of wider brushes for his birthday thus indicating that he should employ broader strokes in his paintings. He received his artistic training in New York at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union, and the Art Students League and with Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. In 1930, Bisttram first traveled to Taos, New Mexico, but found himself frustrated by the grandeur and limitless space of the scenery. Initially he directed his attention to watercolor depictions of Southwest Indian ceremonial dances. He went for several months to Mexico to study mural painting with Diego Rivera, taught briefly in Phoenix, Arizona, and in 1931, settled in Taos. There he established the Taos School of Art and frequently lectured on comparisons of modern and representational art and promoted the theories of Kandinsky and Mondrian. He also started the Heptagon Gallery in Taos. He co-founded with Raymond Jonson the Transcendental Painting Group that promoted non-objective painting, and for a period devoted himself to painting symphonic rhythms. However, he also focused on realistic subjects believing that artists should never limit their style to one particular focus. His murals can be found in the courthouses in Taos and Roswell, New Mexico and the lobby of the Department of Justice Building in Washington DC.

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