Ever since he Rudolf Bauer's work at a gallery in New York in 2005, Rowland Weinstein, owner of the Weinstein Gallery on Geary, has been entranced.
"Oh my God, it's so vibrant and colorful," he says, pointing to a painting, "ConRoso" hanging on the wall of his gallery. "When I look at it, it's so magnetic -- I feel like I could stare at it for hours and go on a complete and total journey."
Weinstein started researching Bauer's life and found an amazing story that includes a love triangle, a Nazi prison camp, and tons of betrayal. After being called the greatest living artist by the New York Herald Tribune and having it hang in the Guggenheim Museum, Bauer's work fell into obscurity.
Weinstein is determined to revive interest in him. And with an exhibit of Bauer's work at his gallery, "In the Realm of the Spirit;" a play at the SF Playhouse, "Bauer" by local hotshot Lauren Gunderson; and a documentary on PBS, "Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolf Bauer," he's doing a pretty good job.
Bauer had quite a life. At 12, he ran away from home after his father beat him up for being an artist. From age 15 on, he made his living making illustrations and caricatures for major magazines. After being imprisoned by the Nazis for creating "degenerate art," he kept sketching on scraps of paper in the prison camp.
The copper magnate, Solomon Guggenheim, sent a suitcase full of money with his curator, Hilla Rebay, who Bauer had an affair with, to get Bauer out of the camp and bring him to America. Bauer signed a contract with Guggenheim, which gave him a mansion, a driver, a stipend, and a maid (who he later married). And then he stopped painting.
Gunderson's play, "Bauer," at the SF Playhouse, explores why.
Weinstein thinks Bauer didn't really understand the contract, which gave Guggenheim the rights to all his paintings. He felt like he had gone, Weinstein says, from a "Nazi prison camp to fancy mansion prison camp." So he didn't make any more paintings. When Guggenheim died, his children took over the museum and put all the Bauers (which had comprised the majority of the artwork) in the basement.
It's not a surprise that other painters of that time, who included Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, didn't rush to Bauer's defense, says Weinstein, who excitedly shows publications Guggenheim put out -- all of which have Bauer's work on the cover. The way Guggenheim promoted him and made it clear he thought Bauer was the best artist of his time understandably bred resentment, Weinstein thinks.
"If you're Kandinsky or Klee," Weinstein said. "You're not loving this Bauer guy."
So Bauer had a huge fall from grace. Weinstein says when he started talking to people in the contemporary art world about Baeur a few years ago, it wasn't that they hadn't heard of Bauer -- it's what they had heard.
"They thought he was relatively unimportant," Weinstein said. "They'd say, 'Well, he was a minor follower of Kandinsky,' or, 'Wasn't he just Hilla Rebay's boyfriend?'"
Weinstein wants to correct that impression by putting Bauer's work out there and letting people know how well regarded he was in his time. He told Bauer's story a few years ago to a reporter with KRON TV, which led to a documentary, Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolf Bauer, narrated by Linda Hunt. Weinstein, a board member at SF Playhouse, gave the documentary to Bill English, the Playhouse's artistic director, who thought the drama of the story would make it a great play. English asked Lauren Gunderson, known for exploring historical figures in her work, if she was interested, and she agreed.
With the show in his gallery and the play opening, Weinstein hopes to bring the artist's work to the light.
"This is one of the best things I'll ever do with my life," Weinstein says. "How could you ever find another story like this?"
"The Realm of the Spirit: A Retrospective of Rudolf Bauer" shows through April 30 at the Weinstein Gallery (383 Geary), (415) 362-8151. "Bauer" plays through April 19 at the San Francisco Playhouse (450 Post). Tickets are $30-$100. S.F. Please call 677-9596 or go to the sfplayhouse.org site for more details.