Emil J Bisttram

(1885 - 1976)


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Emil J. Bisttram was an extremely influential figure in American art, especially in the American Southwest. Through his numerous schools he spread his belief in the importance of art within society and deeply affected hundreds of budding artists. He died in his beloved Taos in 1976.

Modernist painter Emil J. Bisttram is especially renowned for his geometric abstract paintings and his images of New Mexico. Although initially a realist painter, after settling in Taos in early 1930s he began working in both realist and geometric styles. Bisttram frequently drew inspiration from the people, customs, forms, and colors of New Mexico as well as the artistic philosophies of Wassily Kandinksy. Like Kandinksy, he believed paintings transcended the mundane and were infused with spirituality. He became celebrated for his exquisite, colorful, geometric images.

Born in Hungary in 1895, Bisttram immigrated to America with his family when he was eleven. He grew up in the crowded tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side. At an early age he showed a talent for drawing and painting and decided to pursue a career in the arts. He opened the first freelance advertising agency in the United States in New York in 1916. While running this commercial enterprise during the day he took art classes at night under Leon Kroll, Howard Giles, and Jay Hambridge at the Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, and the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. Beginning in 1920 he was appointed assistant instructor under Giles at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. He also taught at the Parsons School of Design and at Nicholas Roerich’s Master Institute of the United States. The Master Institute offered a program that included the study of theosophy, occult philosophies, and the unity of the arts.

In his approach to painting Bisttram was heavily influenced by contemporary theories of art. His teacher Hambridge’s theory of Dynamic Symmetry was particularly appealing to him. This system, based in part on the proportional relationships of the Golden Section and the logarithmic spiral, was one by which the artist could create a perfectly balanced, harmonious, and ideal composition. Bisttram was also influenced by Nicholas Roerich’s mystical ideologies. Roerich was “a multifaceted genius who invested his painting and writing with mystical philosophy and an arcane wisdom. His influence on Bisttram’s thought and art was penetrating and permanent. From Roerich, Bisttram developed the belief that all arts are essentially one and have the power to transform people’s lives.”1 In addition, Bisttram was an ardent appreciator of Wassily Kandinsky’s writings, especially his The Art of Spiritual Harmony. For Bisttram painting was a spiritual journey, as well as an intellectual and physical activity.