Olin H. Travis (Am. 1888-1975), War Lords, 1936, oil on masonite 21 x 51, signed lower left: Olin Travis.
Olin Travis created an untitled maquette (oil on board) in the year 1936, and entered the proposed artwork into a mural competition shortly thereafter. Travis’s proposal was rejected, but this gave rise for Travis to expand the ideas expressed in the composition. The updated version titled, War Lords was submitted for a proposed mural in Texas. Unfortunately, sponsorship was never found, and Travis was despondent over the unrealized mural commission.
Another unique variation of War Lords is currently in an important collection of Texas Art. The ideas in these paintings were radical expressions of Social-Realism, an important art movement that used art as a life force and sought to change public opinion through a social critique of societal ills. Although this movement was promoted by the likes of important American artists Ben Shahn, William Gropper, and Louis Lozowick its popularity was prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest. Examples of this style of painting were rarely seen in Texas. War Lords is thus very rare and one of the earliest examples of Social-Realism in Texas Art.
A Dallas native, Travis began painting at an early age, studying under Frank Reaugh and Vivien Aunspaugh. The artist moved to Chicago where he studied for five years and became an associate instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago. Travis then became an instructor at the Chicago Commercial Art School and was a commercial artist before returning to Dallas in 1924. Travis and his wife, Kathryne Hail Travis, moved back to Dallas and founded the Dallas Art Institute. Later they setup the Ozark Summer School in Cass, Arkansas. Travis continued to teach for over 30 years. His exhibitions spanned the country, including Dallas Museum of Art, Southern States Art League, Denver Art Museum, Roswell Museum and Art Center, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and National Museum of American Art.
In the accompanying exhibition catalogue published by the Georgia Museum of Art: Coming Home: America Paintings 1930-1950, from The Schoen Collection, Travis’s daughter narrates details on War Lords, these descriptions were in a letter written in 1988 by a prior owner of this piece. The letter explains the multi-layered iconography present in the painting, stating, the far left and far right of the painting, in an altarpiece like space, stand the American worker and European worker… The militarism of the three saluting generals point to prostitution (blonde woman in the window), poverty (beggar with tin cups), and crime (fired gun rising out of smoke). At the center… looms the faceless war god, which the war lords to the left and right hold a gun and a bomb… The politicians’ winged heads swam around the war god... the politicians wives play bridge, and a man in prison stripes looks out from behind his cell bars ‘ he stole to feed his family.
War Lords is an important painting for Travis, in particular, utilizing stylized figures, animated motion and an intriguing layered iconography. It encapsulates practices of American Regionalism, with figurative imagery of a tumultuous war-torn time, and simultaneously captures a moment when the political flavor of the time influenced artists to paint compositions that had never been attempted before. Travis tightly renders each figure, in a style reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton, yet whimsical clouds connect and move between the layered vignettes.
Olin Travis was a teacher of many of the group of Dallas Nine Artist. A link that was expressed in a Texas Regional figurative style, displayed here in a rare and mature period from this oeuvre. Warlords fits into this a distinct time and place, unique in American Art, capturing a significant moment in Texas art.
Exhibitions:Visions of Texas 1900 – 1950 at Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont, TX 1997. Coming Home: American Paintings from 1930-50, form the Jason Schoen Collection at: Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, AL; Hard Museum of Art, Gainesville, FL; Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN; Lowe Art Museum, Univ. of Miami, Coral Gables, FL; Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS; Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA; Georgia Museum of Art, Athens GA; Oct 2003 - Nov 2005. The Univ. of Georgia, Athens, GA.