Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) was an American painter. He was born in Virginia, USA. He studied in Paris, where he encountered such famous artists as Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne. At this time, he met another US artist, Morgan Russell, and they invented 'Synchromism', an art movement involved in creating emotion with colour.
In 1915, during WWI, he left the Parisian art world for the new New York art world, and after for southern California, to which he brought the 'gospel' of modern art, and established the first exposition of modern art in Los Angeles.
He was one of the first occidental (western) artists to become interested in Zen and oriental art and culture. In his later years, more and more frequently he visited Japan. He relinquished his abstract style, and had a period of figurative pictures, inspired by (and using) Japanese forms and colours. In the final years of his life, he returned to Synchromism, but his colours were more clement, tranquil and contemplative; much inspired by the Japanese art and philosophy.
Earlier Influences and Europe (1890 – 1912)
Stanton Macdonald-Wright was born 1890, in Chalottesville, Virginia, USA. His father was an amateur painter, and encouraged the young Stanton's interest in art. When Stanton was 10 years old, the family moved to Santa Monica, California. Resisting his family's pressure to aim for a career in medicine, Stanton attempted (unsuccessfully) to run away to Japan, and (successfully) to study art in Los Angeles.
In 1907, aged seventeen and married (last year) to a well-off woman of 27 years, he went to Paris, to enjoy the bohemian life of the avant garde artist (though without the usually associated poverty). He also studied at various art institutions, including the Sorbonne, where he met Henri Focillion, who introduced him to oriental art and philosophy.
Stanton collected art, including works by Cèzanne, by whom he was heavily influenced.
In 1911, he visited London, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Dordrecht, Antwerp and Brussels. He met Morgan Russell, another US expatriate. Russell took him to the atelier of Percyval Tudor-Harte, an English colour-theorist and painter (and, according to Stanton 'perfectly stark-raving mad'). The two studied and worked with Tudor-Harte, and studied colour-theory profoundly.
Stanton and Russell attended the various soirées of Gertrude and Leo Stein, where Stanton met Picasso, Rodin, and Matisse. He also knew Man Ray and many other now-famous artists in Paris at that time.
In 1912, when Vorticism was coming of age in England, and Cubism was in its most productive phase, Stanton and Russell founded Synchromism, an abstract offshoot of cubism that considered colour to be the raw material of art. It closely resembles the Orphism practiced by Robert Delaunay at the same time.
Like Kandinsky, Vorticism, and other then-contemporary abstract artists and movements, Synchomism explained itself in terms of music. Synchromist paintings were called 'Synchromies', a word which closely resembles 'Symphonies'.
"These two artists believed that color had sound equivalents, and the word synchromy means 'with color' the way symphony means 'with sound'. They believed that by painting in color scales in the same way that one composes with musical scales, you could create paintings that would evoke in the viewer musical sensations."
– Will South, Curator, 'Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism'
The War Period (1913 – 1918)
In 1913, Stanton and Russell held two two-man expositions, one in Munich, the other in Paris. The pair then moved to New York, and Stanton separated from his wife. The next year, 1914, they shared another exposition in New York.
They then moved back to Paris, and on to London due to the war. They stayed with Stanton's older brother, Willard Huntington-Wright. In 1915 Stanton and Willard co-author and publish a book, 'Modern Art: Its Tendency and Meaning'. They then move to New York, USA, and the brothers both help to organise an ambitious but disappointing group exposition: 'The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters'. Stanton did some teaching work, and had a solo exhibition in 1917, although little sold.
In 1918, he left New York, and moved back home to Los Angeles, California.
Taking the Gospel of Modern Art to California (1920 – 1925)
California, and the rest of the USA's occidental coast, was virtually untouched by modern art in 1918. Impressionism was still considered to be pretty radical.
In 1920, Stanton began to experiment with film. He created a full-length feature film, but it was destroyed in a fire. In the same year, he organised the first modern art exposition at 'The Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, Exposition Park', entitled 'Exhibition of Paintings by American Modernists'. He also gave several lectures there, on modern art.
In 1923 he began teaching at the 'Los Angeles Art Students League', where he had previously studied before moving to Paris. He soon took over as director, and held the post for ten years. He also organised the 'First Exhibition of the Group of Independent Artists of Los Angeles'; the Group of Independent Artists of Los Angeles became an important artistic group in the area.
In 1924 he wrote 'A Treatise on Color', summarizing the Synchromist method. This is probably his most important literary work.
The next year, 1925, he organised the 'Modern Art Workers'. This became another important artist collective in California. He also organized various exhibitions of modern art in the following years.
Development of Japanese Influences (1927 – 1973)
In 1927, the Los Angeles Museum hosted 'Synchromism', an exposition of Synchromist work. Also, Stanton wrote and directed Synchromist theatre in Santa Monica, using for the purpose a device he invented to project colour. Both he and Russell have been interested in making a kinetic light machine since their Paris days; this is an important first step (the project was finally realized fully in 1959).
During the 1930s, he created an important mural cycle for the Santa Monica Public Library, showing art, science, and lots of great thinkers from around the world and throughout time. He was also involved in a number of exhibitions in New York and California, and he became first district supervisor, then later state director for a US governmental art-related organisation ('Federal Arts Project/ Works Project Administration'). He repeatedly refers to this project as 'setting art back 150 years' in the area. He also says:
Also, in 1933, he wrote 'A Basis of Culture', a survey of worldwide art (unpublished). He spent 1939 in a Zen Monastery.
In the 1940s, he had many major exhibitions, and began teaching oriental and contemporary art at UCLA (the University of California at Los Angeles).
In 1951, his wife died. In 1952, he remarried, and also travelled to Tokyo to study Chinese and Japanese painting and sculpture, and also to do some teaching in Tokyo, as a Fulbright professor. He resigned from UCLA in 1954 due to ill health. In 1956 there was a major retrospective of Stanton's work.
After decades of attempts and failures, in 1959 Stanton built the first version of the Synchrome Kineidoscope, the light machine about which he and Russell had been theorising since 1913. Stanton's brother Willard wrote a book about the machine entitled 'The Future of Painting'.
In about 1960, Stanton was given a house in the Kyoto monastery where he spent 1939. This suggests that he was well-revered in Japan at this time. He began to spend most of his time living there, in the monastery. From that point all of his painting was done in Japan.
In 1962 he suffered a heart attack, but recovered. In 1964 – 1965 he worked with Clif Karhu in Tokyo on a series of 20 colour woodblock prints entitled 'Haiga'.
His figurative period used Japanese forms and colours, and his later-life Synchromies, with such titles as 'Flight of the Butterfly' and 'Subjective Time', have a subtle, flowing, meditative feel to them which is undoubtedly related to his contact with Zen philosophy and art.
In 1973, he died of a heart attack, aged 83.