Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Announcing Our Nominees...
Next story: Stravinsky's The Soldiers Tale Production Reborn

Behind The Curtain

Set Design, by Martha Visser't Hooft for Histoire du Soldat

Martha Visser't Hooft's theatrical side

Buffalo born painter Martha Hamlin Visser’t Hooft (1906-1994) is one of this region’s most respected artists. She ranks among those who defined the modern aesthetic in Western New York, especially during the 1950s, when she was at the height of her career and included in survey exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and other museums across the United States. Her life and accomplishments were well documented by a 1991 biography and a retrospective exhibition the following year at the Anderson Gallery.

A number of experiences in Visser’t Hooft’s formative years—time spent in Paris and New York in the 1920s as a young artist—led to her mature painting style of abstracted surrealistic compositions of forms and textures. In Paris she studied the work of modernist artists while working at the Académie Julian and immersed herself in music and avant-garde theater of that era. In New York she interacted with the creative Russian émigré community and also explored her initial interest in the visual arts by studying theatre set and costume design.

Costume Design, by Martha Visser't Hooft for Histoire du Soldat

These seemingly unrelated activities merged in 1951 when the conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic commissioned Visser’t Hooft to design the “decor, costumes, sets and curtain” for a benefit premiere performance of Igor Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale (L’ histoire du soldat). She accomplished the task utilizing the language of stage-like pictorial space she had been successfully expressing in her paintings, such as the 1950 masterwork Tumblers and Pigeons (currently in the collection at the Burchfield Penney Art Center). The very well received production was hailed as a unique collaboration at the time. Students from the Albright Art School, assisted by the Studio Theatre, executed the theatrical designs.

All of this would have remained a footnote in local cultural history if it had not been for BPO violist Janz Castelo’s decision to have his Buffalo Chamber Players collaborate with the Buffalo Soundpainting Ensemble and present A Soldier’s Tale in 2009. Castelo, artistic director of the Buffalo Chamber Players, founded the mixed instrumentation chamber group in 2007 in an effort to “explore lesser heard masterworks of the chamber music repertoire and redefine the perception of chamber music to the general public.” A Soldier’s Tale, a work admired and respected by musicians that is rarely presented as it was originally written, with full staging and other theatrical components, was an ideal vehicle to fulfill the Players’ mission and provided an opportunity to engage other creative disciplines.

Castelo’s discovery that the complete work was presented in Buffalo in 1951 (ironically at the same location—Buffalo Seminary—where the upcoming performance will take place) and that Visser’t Hooft had designed the sets led to a series of other discoveries fueled by an intriguing combination of happenstance and scholarly research at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Buffalo News Archives, and the Visser’t Hooft Archives at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. An original sketch for one of the production’s sets and a rendering of one of the costume designs were found in two separate private collections—they had been auctioned off at the 1951 benefit—and two additional set designs were illustrated in newspaper articles that reported on the event. Finally, an archival copy of the program indicated that octogenarian Matthew Tworek, a former BPO assistant concertmaster who still resides in the area, had performed in the Buffalo production. Castelo contacted him for his recollection of the experience.

An exhibition of works by Visser’t Hooft with representation from each decade of her artistic output has been organized for the evening by event sponsor Dean Brownrout of 20th Century Finest (, a Buffalo-based art dealer who is increasingly becoming a nexus for mid-century works by artists associated with this region. On view in the atrium of Buffalo Seminary an hour before and following the 7pm performance, the exhibition will provide a context for the designs and a painting by Visser’t Hooft that was acquired by the school when she (a 1926 alumnus) was a visiting artist in their Colby Art Program. Brownrout, who assisted with the research leading up to event and will provide program notes on the artist, is committed to celebrating the work of artists such as Visser’t Hooft who enjoyed national and international reputations during their time, importantly bringing their work to the attention of a generation who may be unfamiliar with this rich regional cultural legacy.

In an additional spirit of cooperation, the Poetry Collection at UB has donated copies of the Visser’t Hooft biography, authored by Albert Michaels and Robert Bertholf, for the May 27 performance at Buffalo Seminary. The sale of the publication at the event will benefit the Buffalo Chamber Players (

blog comments powered by Disqus