Midwest Modern: Mabel Hewit at The Cleveland Museum of Art

As everyone in the art world knows, the Cleveland Museum of Art has been undergoing a massive renovation that began in 2005. Since then we’ve enjoyed a number of unveilings and re-openings of galleries. The most recent was the re-opening of the galleries in the lower level of the 1916 building. Here we find the new CMA prints and drawings galleries. To inaugurate these galleries, the Cleveland Museum of Art is currently featuring a little-known Cleveland artist in Midwest Modern: The Color Woodcuts of Mabel Hewit. Mabel Hewit was born in Conneaut, OH in 1903 and raised in Youngstown, OH. She spent the last 50 years of her life in Cleveland producing beautifully colored prints of city life during the Depression and the years following. The vibrancy of color and the modern focus of geometric form found in these prints present this era as a period filled with icons of strength and stability despite the hardship.

The exhibition includes lithographs, sketches, and textiles, but most prominent are the woodblock prints that highlight Hewit’s white-line woodcut technique. Learned while in Provincetown, Massachusetts from Blanche Lazzell, this technique allows the artist to separate sections of the woodblock with grooves and ink each section with different colors separately before printing. The grooves are not inked and the result is a print that retains the white embossed line separating the brilliant colors of the print. This technique also results in a beautiful woodblock, itself a sculpted piece. Midwest Modern includes a number of Hewit’s woodblocks in the show, many of which include images on both sides of the block.

Formally, Hewit’s woodcuts, with their focus on the lines and the flatness of spaces easily point to an influence in Cubism, Precissionism, and Art Deco. Her teacher Lazzell said Cubism was the “organization of flat planes of color, with an interplay of space instead of perspective.” The white-line technique allowed Hewit to explore these formal elements of color and space. But Hewit’s subjects, as much as form is most endearing to this viewer. It is the emphasis of some of life’s simple pleasures and the refusal to be disheartened Hewit’s prints share with the ukiyo-e woodblocks that are most pleasing.

Hewitt’s woodcuts from about 1933 depict scenes of Provincetown, similar Lazzell’s prints. The exhibition also includes landscapes from her travels to Mexico, Guatemala, and the West Indies. Though it is her industrial landscapes and scenes of everyday life closer to home that inspire. These prints monumentalize iconic images from the Depression Era. Along with the factories and gable-roofed houses of the Midwestern landscape, a newsboy, sandwich men, and boys playing baseball stand as strong symbols of stability and even hope during the 1930s. Like Grant Wood’s celebration of rural America, Hewit reveals the strength in the industrial Midwest and the white line technique of her woodblocks emphasizes this stability. Even pedestrians in The Storm from about 1935 are unnerved.

Midwest Modern: The Color Woodcuts by Mabel Hewit is a perfect inaugural installation for the prints and drawings galleries. Recognizing a local printmaker whose work features recognizable industrial landscapes and scenes of everyday life is fitting. By doing so, the Cleveland Museum of Art simultaneously recognizes the art traditions of printmaking and drawing and the art history of Northeast Ohio. Further, the geometric emphasis of her prints echo the forms found in the newly opening Egyptian galleries nearby. The interplay of the fundamentals of art, history, community, and culture in the 1916 galleries reflects the beautiful integration of style and subject of Mabel Hewit’s white-line technique woodcuts.

-Kathy Stockman

Midwest Modern: The Color Woodcuts by Mabel Hewit is on view in the new 1916 Building Prints and Drawings Galleries at the Cleveland Museum of Art now through October 24, 2010

Pictured Above:
Sun Bathing, 1937. Mabel Hewit (American, 1903–1984). Color woodcut; 27.7 x 30.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey in memory of Mabel A. Hewit 2003.362 Print © Mabel Hewit

Pictured below:
The Storm, about 1935. Mabel Hewit (American, 1903–1987). Color woodcut; 27.6 x 22.7 cm. Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey Print © Mabel Hewit