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Joseph Kleitsch
Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California
Review by Liz Goldner


Continuing through September 24, 2023


This major retrospective of work by Joseph Kleitsch reveals that the California Impressionist was, "a master of gorgeous color,” who, “seemed to play on canvas with the abandon of a gypsy violinist," as critic Arthur Millier explained in the Los Angeles Times in 1933. Indeed, to view this exhibition of six dozen paintings is to enter a world resonating with color, light, form, texture and the intense emotions of the artist as translated onto canvas.


The show demonstrates how Kleitsch’s work differed in subject matter from most other early 20th-century California Impressionists, including Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills, Granville Redmond, and William Wendt. These artists painted lush landscapes and seascapes, employing the broad brushstrokes and pure bright colors of the earlier French Impressionists. Kleitsch, using a similar painting technique, was more interested in portraying townscapes, street scenes, cottages, gardens and eucalyptus trees, all specific to the Southern California ambiance. He foresaw that Laguna Beach with its rustic flavor, was being overtaken by development, and should be recorded for posterity. “Laguna Beach” (1924), as an example, is an overview of small buildings and trees, nestled among canyons and sky.


Kleitsch also painted on the grounds of the nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano. “Red and Green (Mission San Juan Capistrano)” (1923) depicts a brightly clad woman, probably his wife Edna, standing among a colorful flower garden, shielding her eyes from the sun, beside the Mission. His “Going to Church (Sunday Morning)” (1924) illustrates two beautiful pre-teen girls in their Sunday bests, the Mission in the background. Often working indoors, Kleitsch painted colorful interiors, including “The Oriental Shop” (1922), depicting a boutique owned by Edna, selling a plethora of colorful oriental objects inside L.A.’s famous Ambassador Hotel.


Jean Stern, Director Emeritus, Irvine Museum and the Guest Curator of the Kleitsch exhibition, explains, “While other artists painted the beach and landscapes, [Kleitsch] was fascinated by ordinary life in the small village, and many of his paintings show aspects of early Laguna that no longer exist … ‘The Old Post Office’ (1922), for example, shows the front porch of the local general store that also served as the town's first post office. The building was torn down a year after Kleitsch painted it." As one of the museum’s most treasured paintings, it provides a look at old Laguna, with bright daylight illuminating an old-fashioned building with a cowboy and dog on its steps, Laguna Canyon in the background.


Born in Hungary in 1882, Kleitsch favored depicting people in urban settings as the 19th century French artists did. He began painting at age seven and soon after started painting lessons. As a teenager, he apprenticed to a sign painter and then began painting portraits. He emigrated to the United States in 1901, first settling in New York, then in the Midwest, and finally in Laguna Beach in 1920, where he spent the rest of his life, dying prematurely in 1931.


Kleitsch became a member of the Laguna Beach Art Association, forerunner of Laguna Art Museum. While receiving several portrait commissions in Laguna and exhibiting his work at the nascent museum, he became devoted to painting the local landscapes and street scenes. The majority of paintings in this retrospective were created while he lived in Laguna, also traveling throughout the state and making a 22-month foray in Europe. “Giverny” (1927) is an overview of Claude Monet’s estate with the famous gardens in front and mountains in the background, similar in style to his Laguna Beach paintings. Kleitsch also completed several portraits of beautiful women in Paris, including “Reflections, Vernon (M’lle at Table)” (1927) of a dark-haired, elegantly attired woman, gazing admiringly at the handsome artist.


The exhibition includes several self-portraits, among them “The Artist (Self Portrait)” (1909), depicting the mustached artist holding a palette and paint brush in front of his easel. Also displayed is the seductive “Portrait of Nelson Griffith” (1922), a striking young man, the son of Impressionist artist William Alexander Griffith, in jeans and T-shirt. With the ocean in the background, this painting could have been done today. Completing this incandescent, diverse show are still lifes inspired by the Dutch masters, including “Cantaloupe, Paris” (1927), a luscious painting of a large juicy cantaloupe, grapes and peaches spilling out on a table. 

Laguna Art Museum

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