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Walter Ufer, Hunger

Walter Ufer's "Hunger" captures the struggle of 20th-century Native Americans. The vivid colors and expressive brushwork highlight a man's despair, underlining survival challenges. This artwork serves as a potent social commentary and exploration of cultural identity. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Laura] We're at the Gilcrease Museum and we're looking at a painting by Walter Ufer called "Hunger," painted in 1919. - [Lauren] This painting by Ufer is his attempt to process some of the emotions that were running through both his community and throughout many places in the world around the era of the first World War and the influenza pandemic of 1918. - [Laura] We see three figures kneeling before a crucifix, and to the side of that crucifix is a statue of the Virgin Mary. They are turned away from us and they're in a shallow space. It feels claustrophobic. - [Lauren] It's a deliberately asymmetrical composition which makes it feel unsettling. They're forming into this triangle, pointing your eye up toward the crucifix. The woman on the left places her hand on the man's shoulder. And most of the canvas is taken up with this stark adobe wall. As you look at the surface, you'll also notice there are bare nails scattered all across this wall. Down in the lower left corner, a tiny mouse is crouched here. - [Laura] And the mouse is standing on this colorful carpet that's draped over a shallow table. The crucifix and the Virgin Mary are an example of a New Mexican religious sculptural tradition there what are called Santos. And more specifically their bultos or sculpted holy figures. - [Lauren] And the Christ figure wears vestments that are traditional to the Penitente tradition of Catholicism. - [Laura] The Penitentes are a religious brotherhood that was formed in New Mexico during the Spanish colonial control of this area. So New Mexico was once in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. After winning independence from Spain, this is now part of Mexico. And eventually, will then be absorbed into, what is today, the United States. And the Penitentes are associated with Catholicism, but often the church did not agree with their practices and they do get censored. - [Lauren] And the Penitentes are a group that still exists in New Mexico today. The title of the painting is simply "Hunger" and the artist is referencing more a spiritual or emotional hunger rather than physical hunger. Although the little mouse in the corner does perhaps hint at a physical sense of hunger as well. - [Laura] As you mentioned, the woman has her hand on the man's shoulder and he has his hands clasped together up against his forehead, his head leaning down just below the crucifix as if he is asking for help. - [Lauren] There's a distinct sense of grief pervading these figures. But while there's a sense of grief, there's also a sense of company and comfort of one another. - [Laura] And that tension between loss and comfort is something I see in this idea that there can be solace found in holy figures. But at the same time, we see that the crucifix is broken and the nails on the wall which suggest that there had been other figures at one point and now they're gone. - [Lauren] There's symbols throughout the painting that speak to this idea of loss or of emptiness. So Walter Ufer was born in Germany in 1876. And when he was a young child, his family immigrated to Louisville, Kentucky. For the rest of his life, he would claim Louisville as his birthplace. - [Laura] Part of the reason for that is there's anti-German sentiment that is strong at this time. - [Lauren] Ufer also had a chance to travel in Europe as a young man and, most notably, he studies in Munich from 1911 to 1913. And at this point, Munich is a major center for the study of the arts in Europe. It's in Munich that Ufer develops his signature loose painting style, and you can really see that in this painting in the Adobe wall. He imbues it with his three-dimensional sense. - [Laura] After he spends time in Germany, he comes back to the United States and will make his way to Santa Fe and to Taos, which is where he will paint "Hunger." - [Lauren] And when he travels to Taos, a town in the mountains of northern New Mexico, he meets six of the founders of what would become the Tao Society of Artists. And this is a group of painters who lived and worked in Taos, New Mexico. They were drawn by the blend of cultures that exist in Taos, The Hispanic cultures, the Native American Puebloan cultures and the Anglo travelers coming through. The Taos Society of Artists comes together to support each other, to plan exhibitions. And in 1917, Walter Ufer is invited to join the Tao Society of Artists. - [Laura] It's at this moment when you have many artists who are searching for a supposed authentic American art. - [Lauren] Artists like Walter Ufer are positing that this blend of Native American and Latin American cultures in New Mexico represented something distinctly American. And so they saw the Southwest as inspiration to create an American school of art. When Walter Ufer first starts working in Taos, New Mexico, his initial paintings of Taos show a beautiful, welcoming, light-filled place. His painting "Taos Plaza," it has this stunning blue sky. It's all about this landscape and the distinct light of New Mexico. So this painting "Hunger" is very different. - [Laura] Ufer with his German background and German name is someone who, as you mentioned earlier, tried hard to make people forget that. In some ways, we could read this painting as Ufer finding a parallel in what's happening in New Mexico with different, long-standing traditions that are being suppressed. - [Lauren] There's also a potential reference here to the devastation that's caused by the 1918 influenza pandemic. Like everywhere across the world, the flu pandemic hit Taos, New Mexico, in 1918. And Walter Ufer and his wife Mary assisted the town's one doctor in caring for patients. I can only imagine that that would've been a traumatic experience to witness. As all these events are happening, you're getting news reports about the devastation caused by the first World War. - [Laura] Ufer, like so many artists of the early 20th century, are grappling with that larger question, "How do you understand a world that's been thrown into such chaos and devastation?" - [Lauren] He said that this painting quote "has nothing to do with Indian life," but "means the world at large." And so while he's depicting members of the Taos Pueblo, it's really not about this one community or this one culture. This is a reference to events that are spanning the globe. (piano music)