Darien Historical Society exhibits work by Margaret Brassler Kane

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
Breadline is one of Margaret Brassler Kane's sculptures at the Darien Historical Society
Breadline is one of Margaret Brassler Kane's sculptures at the Darien Historical Society

Sculptor Margaret Brassler Kane was a woman ahead of her time.

She worked full-time during the 1930s and 1940s — a period when most women were homemakers.

“In the 1930 and 1940s, the expectation of women was completely different,” said Kathie Motes Bennewitz, guest curator at the Darien Historical Society, and an independent art historian. “She fought very hard to be recognized as a professional artist. She exhibited alongside men her entire life.”

Brassler Kane’s sculptures will be on exhibit at the Darien Historical Society, 45 Old Kings Highway North, from Friday, Oct. 19, to Feb. 3.

There will be an opening celebration of the exhibit Friday at 7:30 p.m., with a champagne reception, and a lecture series. The exhibit is free for members, $5 for others. Refreshments will be served. Registration is required. For more information, visit darienhistorical.org or call 203-655-9233.

The exhibit, called About Time: The masterwork of Margaret Brassler Kane (1909-2006), features 23 works from different periods in Brassler Kane’s life.

The sculptures in the exhibit represent Brassler Kane’s life's work. They range from those she created when she was studying to be a sculptor, up through two years prior to her death at 96.

Lifelong artist

Brassler Kane was born to a German immigrant who came to the U.S. to work for Tiffany & Company, and was a master jeweler and metalsmith.

Born in New Jersey, she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., and later lived in Greenwich. After she got married in 1930, she began spending her summers at her home on Pear Tree Point in Darien.

Brassler Kane’s work is featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C, and she was a founding member of the Sculptors Guild i.n Manhattan, which is still in existence today.

Her son, Jay Kane, and her grandson, Jim Kane, both live in Darien and will be at the exhibit’s opening day to answer questions.

Changing times

Brassler Kane’s sculptures were a reflection of the changing times she lived in, according to Bennewitz.

In the late 1930s, she had been working on and aesthetic pieces, and then, in light of the coming war, she shifted to “more socially informed works” of the times, Bennewitz said.

The sculpture “Flight” — which is featured in the Darien exhibit — is a reflection of World War II and depicts a family with all their belongings in a knapsack, including their goat and geese, “fleeing out of fear,” according to Bennewitz.

When looking at the sculpture, “you see this family that has to come together and is only carrying the few items that they need for survival,” she added.

The piece reflects today’s immigration issues, she said. “There are people who are now in refugee camps, having to cross borders and putting their families in peril.”

Brassler Kane “was very disturbed and inspired” by the conflicts in society and the war, and her work “really looks hard” at these life struggles, Bennewitz said.

A second sculpture on exhibit, called “Bread and Wine,” shows the sharp contrast of different classes in society. Created in 1940, it’s actually two bronze sculptures that have been brought together as one.

One piece is of well-dressed men and women socializing over cocktails in a nightclub. The other part is of gaunt figures standing in a bread line to receive food.

By bringing these two pieces together into one work, Brassler Kane “is making a powerful statement about the disparities of wealth,” Bennewitz said.

By consciously pairing people in need while capturing the “spirit and frivolity” of nightclub life, “she is creating a foil so there is an appreciation of this disparity that maybe would go unnoticed otherwise,” Bennewitz said.

Bennewitz added that the pieces showcase Brassler Kane’s ability to capture the spirit of the era in her work.

Brassler Kane carved her creations from stone and wood, modeled others in plaster and also cast them in bronze.

She was one of the few women who practiced direct carving, according to Bennewitz.

Direct carving is a process where artists have some idea in mind of what the end product will be but lets the form or image direct them as their work progresses.

“She might be inspired by the wood grain or the wood color,” said Bennewitz, adding the artists will use their artistic instincts to guide them when creating each work.

Brassler Kane’s creations were last featured in an exhibit hosted by the Greenwich Historical Society in 2008.

“That exhibit gives us a groundwork and a foundation of understanding her work, and that provided the springboard for this show,” Bennewitz said.

Symbols of Changing Man

The highlight of the Darien exhibit, according to Bennewitz, are five 6x6-foot lime wood panels.

One panel, which was created in the late 1930s, is called “Symbols of Changing Man,” and reflects the changing times.

On one side of this panel, there are people carrying produce from feudal times in primitive ways, and on the other side, they are transporting goods through more modern methods.

In these panels, Brassler Kane “captures the exploration of more radical thinking at the time,” Bennewitz said.

“The series was a lifelong work for her,” Bennewitz said. “It really conveys her vision of ancient and modern times and explores issues of labor and commerce and work and industry.”

Brassler Kane’s art and her work “propelled her through life as a mother and a wife,” Bennewitz said. “Her dedication to her art, and to never give up, to keep working and following that dream — that's who she was and she stayed true to that.”