Puccinelli, autobiographisches Fragment (S. 6-12)
I have always been especially interested in the human figure in movement. Fascinated by gymnasts and acrobats and dancers, at twelve I was a member of a group of gymnasts, which won a national prize… -, but my great interest was in watching. For instance, I had spent hours watching Charlie Chaplin make some of his early movies with his unusual sense of movement, which we call “dance”, in all that he did. I have written more on Chaplin.
There came to San Francisco in the late 20s, Ann Mundstock from Germany, where she had worked at the Von Laban School. Rudolph von Laban was the great pioneer of the modern dance. His philosophy of the human body as an entity, embracing all movements (Gestalt), completely revolutionized any previous ideas I may have had. Here was a complete synthesis of moving in space and time and I felt that I could bring this into sculpture.
Ann had a most penetrating and sensitive personality with an exceptional teaching ability. With her unlimited transparency of thought, the Mundstock classes were constantly punctuated with wisdom that went beyond mere outward dance. Beautiful movements are beautiful because they are true. Without movement that springs from within there can be no genuine movement. A dancer’s life is one of constant commitment. There is no moment in our life in which there is no movement and a dancer must understand the essence of these movements. Her talks on breath control were a new and fascinating fascet of the world of movement for me.
The Mundstock studio was never idle. Someone was always trying out dance movements or perhaps a fine musician was playing on the grand piano. Many modern works of music were born in this studio. Here Henry Cowell improvised and composed some of his finest pieces, some of which were used in the dance. For instance, here the revolutionary “Ionisation” of Edgar Varese had one of its first performances, under the direction of Henry Cowell.
Constantly sketching in this studio changed my style of drawing, I had gained a newer freedom toward creativity -. I sought to seize the “creative interval” between the exhalation and the inhalation of breath – that which makes a work of art “live”, and I compared these ideas with Egyptian and African art as well as many others wherein these qualities seemed supreme to me.
Many were the dancers from all over the world who came to give classes at the Mundstock studio. Among the most impressive were Mary Wigman, Harald Kreutzberg, Yvonne Georgi, who were exponents of the “Labanschule”. I drew furiously in all cases these and many other dancers and members of outstanding theatre groups who performed in San Francisco: which included Mei Ean Fang, the great Chinese actor; Japanese; Balinese dancers headed by Mario; Indian – ShanKar and his group; Escudero and his group of Flamenco dancers; Hanya Holm; Bodil Genkel, etc. Katherine Dunham and her group. I drew them all; many came to my studio to pose.
During the 30s amongst my many works in terra cotta, I did a series of small dance studies, which were the outgrowth of my numerous drawings. Portraits of Roland Hayes, Kenneth Spencer, Marian Anderson, Orson Welles and numerous others were done at this time.
While working in terra cotta, I continued to earn my livelihood with commissions from architects – designing contemporary furniture in wood which I embellished with carvings. The commission by the architect, Rossi, to do all of the sculpture in polychromed wood for Corpus Christi Church of Piedmont, California, gave me my first real opportunity to carry out a group of sculptures for a determined space. This was an interesting challenge as I had not experimented with color for my works in wood. I used a medium for the covering of the wood which was based on casein glue. Years later I inquired as to the condition of the job and I was told that it was intact.
In these years San Francisco had an art colony of an international flavour. It was often considered a second Paris. Many artists had come there to live and others sojourned there for a greater or shorter period. Foujita, the Japanese artist from Paris with his auburn-haired French wife spent some time in San Francisco after a long trip throughout South America. His unique appearance and personality immediately captured the hearts of all of us, making for a continuous adventure in Japanese cuisine, music and theatre arts. During several artists’ parties, one of them in my studios, he was the central attraction – with his Japanese fisherman and warrior dances. (In his early days he had earned his living as an entertainer in Paris). He was also an aficionado of the bull fight and had taken many meters of bull fight motion pictures – which he showed us with careful explanations. (Later, with this knowledge, I avoided a serious encounter with a Buffalo in California and on another occasion cheated a bull in South America of the pleasure of goring. Foujita was man of unusual culture and it was interesting to hear him discuss his early days in Paris. His love of cats was as great as mine. –
It was a veritable pleasure to know Henri Matisse whose genuinely elegant personality impressed me. He spent a short time in San Francisco on a trip which he was making to Tahiti. After a brief meeting with me he invited himself to my studio. In a rather humorous fashion I said that I should think that he saw enough art in Paris. His reply – that he was particularly interested because I was a young sculptor and he too considered himself a sculptor (something which I did not realize) having spent eight years of work under Rodin and Bourdelle. He seemed not too pleased to be known only as a painter. The next day he was promptly at my studio. He looked carefully at all of my work – some pieces in clay were not finished and were covered over with damp cloths which he insisted on seeing also. This made me slightly embarrassed as the works were not ready for viewing. Finally he made the remark that he had been wondering. “Where are all of the men in American Art? Where are the young artists who really work and so many women in the arts and only 1/2 serious, Now I finally find one who is of the family of artists, If you were to come to Paris, you’d be one of us. Come over – and on the way stop in New York and make acquaintance with Herbert Bittner who is a lover of sculpture, - I feel that he will like your work.” Matisse talked a length about his work. He would spend a long time on a painting, turning it to the wall for many months, then taking it up again and reconsidering it. He discussed drawing. He did not feel that many critics were correct in emphasizing so very much the Near Eastern influences in his work. One point surprised me. He said that he had ardently studied and had been influenced by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci which he said were “nature done over in a new kind of handwriting”. He spoke of finding, losing & finding again the line. – He felt that Rodin had directed him toward new paths. “You know,” he said, “that Rodin was also a colorist in his sculpture.”
This discussion, parts of which come back to me from time to time, meant more to me than years of schooling. Many months later I was on my way to New York via the Indian country in the Southwest of the United States. I immediately was hard at work in a studio on 23rd Street, then moving to share a studio with a German sculptor, Carl Schmitz. It was here that Herbert Bittner came to see the work that I had been doing. Bittner, I learned, had a wide experience in the arts, especially sculpture and drawing. He had also spent some years in Rome as director of an important book store. Now director of the Westermann Gallery at Rockefeller Center, he specialized in showing works of noted European artists such as Kathe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach, Lehmbruck, George Grosz, his emphasis being on Germans not accepted by the Hitler regime. On seeing my work, he was immediately enthusiastic and asked to exhibit my work in the gallery, that he directed. I didn’t have enough work for a one-man show (it was a large, elegant gallery), nor could I promise one in the near future as I didn’t have the capital for the castings and these works that I was doing were for bronze. Fortunately, I had worked with a Sicilian bronze caster on Long Island, Mario Scoma. He did a fine job for me and Herbert Bittner, exhibited them in a three-man show with two noted German sculptors Barlach and Lehmbruck.
At about this time a good friend, the noted book designer, Valenti Angelo, introduced me to Mr. Price of the Ferargil Galleries who had seen a number of my terra cottas and invited me to show in a three-man show with bronzes by Degas, stones and bronzes by Maillol, and terra cottas and bronzes by myself. The gallery was one of the oldest and finest in New York. Mr. Price had brought to America the complete set of bronzes by Degas which were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum. A few years earlier he had given Epstein his first one-man showing in America.
I found New York an exciting place in these times. America had been going through a financial crisis (which had also hit me) consequently there had been several theatres formed, sponsored by the government. One of the motivating spirits of this Federal Theatre was Orson Welles, who not only directed but acted the main role in an outstanding production of Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”. He also directed a great production of “Macbeth” with an all-Negro cast in Harlem. The Yiddish theatres were thriving with productions full of great imagination. A group of dancers from Africa, I forget them by name, as well as a group led by a great dancer, Asadata Dafora, had me enthralled. The great ShanKar of India gave numerous performances and Martha Graham was doing some of her most outstanding work. I was acquainted with all of these people and I especially feel much indebted to Martha for giving me such freedom of use of her studio where I sketched her and members of her group. Later I tried a portrait of Orson Welles but he was so active that I could not finish it. I did some sketches of the African dancers but I had more success working from ShanKar and especially form Martha Graham with whom I spent several afternoons a week doing sketches of her every movement. These observations influenced my work. Later, for the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco, I exhibited many drawings of Martha Graham and two bronzes which were done under the influence of her movements.
 One of my best friends at this time was the noted psychologist, Alfred Adler. His was a new world for me and I learned much later that he found my world just as new for him, much to my surprise. Every Friday night he held a round table discussion at his apartment attended by noted psychoanalysts, psychologists, philosophers, and writers who lived in or visited New York. On several occasions he invited me to the motion pictures – a form of amusement which pleased him much more than it pleased me. I asked him, “Why do you like motion pictures so?”. He answered that he could always find new psychological truths in nearly every film. I told him that truth reached me via the aesthetic quality and not just bay way of something the public liked… I found more truth in a great work in the Theatre even through in a language foreign to me than in a commercial movie – but – as great as he was as a doctor and therapist, he could not get my point. I use great – as he was truly a great expansive human being. It was a revelation to watch him at work. The round table discussions were open only to doctors and educators of the profession and I was fortunate in being the invited guest and so I just sat and listened. Especially difficult cases were discussed. Adler had an unusually sharp memory. Chewing on a cigar he would quietly listen to a doctor discuss a case for as long as an hour and then recapitulate sentence by sentence – discussing, synthesizing and suggesting. Deeply versed in the great literature of the past: he freely illustrated his discussion with quotations from the Scriptures, Shakespeare and Schiller. One did not have to be a medical man to estimate his qualities of penetration and lucidity of vision – the outcome of a state of awareness and consciousness. His was undoubtedly a deeply emotional nature which had been bridled, controlled in a warm human world of imagination. A great man of science he said that one must feel and imagine and he himself did this with simplicity and serenity. His advanced ideas on criminality were permeated with profound esteem for the dignity of all human beings. For me, in all of his simplicity as a man, Alfred Adler was a deep spiritual document. At the suggestion of Alfred Adler I decided to do some teaching at the first opportunity that arose – and this came sooner than I had expected.
I returned to San Francisco in the summer of 1937 in the antiquated automobile of a friend of many years, Winthrop Sargeant, music editor of Life Magazine – who was making research on the roots of folk music and jazz – most interesting trip.
Once again in San Francisco, I immediately set to work, on figures in plaster and some terra cottas. Again meeting Bona and Simich, granite cutters, with whom I had previously tried my hand at granite. I was much interested in this medium and I set to work as their assistant as apprentice. Bona, an elderly Venetian and master craftsman, was difficult to work with. If the blow of the hammer were not done with absolute exactitude, he angrily shouted at me “Ostia”. Simich was from Dalmatia, younger and more ambitious and with a broad knowledge of mechanics. He could turn to anything from carpentry to master shipbuilding. In this latter field he was responsible for various innovations.
I have never been attracted by the “easy way” and that is my fundamental reason for abandoning that which is called “abstract” for something more “concrete”. I had to start anew. I wanted “work with effort” and I succeeded in getting it. What great problems to solve before a block of marble or granite! Within a short time I headed a project for the Federal government with a number of craftsmen at my disposal, all of them Italians. I carried out for the works progress administration a number of works in glazed terra cotta, as well as in marble, and also my largest work in stone, a “Panther” in black polished diorite, 3 meters long. In addition, I received commissions from the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition World’s Fair for a number of sculptures. A figure “Flora”, 25 feet in height, six figures for the façade of the San Francisco Building and a number of wood carvings for the California Building. I was fortunate at that time to have able assistants who facilitated the carrying out of so much work.