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Fifteen witty "portraits" make up the Oochens, a fanciful series of drawings by Edward Steichen created from 1919 to 1922. Gagaboos, nosy neighbors, puppy dogs, painters, and poets inhabit the Oochen Republic, an imaginary world more harmonious than our own—a place where life is simpler because everything is arranged according to a single proportion, the Golden Mean. Steichen would entertain his two young daughters with stories of the Oochens. His intention, which was never realized, was to publish these works as illustrations for a children’s book.

Each Oochen character was based on a preliminary design made from three proportional triangles arranged to form a suggestive shape. In Madame X and Johnny Marine, the green triangles at top right are Johnny Marine, who peeks down from his red perch (note his beady eye). The yellow and aqua triangles below constitute Madame X, donning a dark blue coat and warily holding Johnny’s gaze. An accompanying caption written by Steichen identifies at least one of the subjects of this satiric scene as the American artist, and Steichen’s friend, John Marin: "Madame X and Johnny Marine, also known as Sailor John the Painter. He has run up a bar of vermilion after painting Madame X’s portrait on the back of her cloak, and she is wondering if he has run up the bar of vermilion to look at her or her portrait." Madame X may refer to the Hollywood film, Madame X, released in 1920, or to John Singer Sargent’s celebrated painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Golden Mean, or Golden Section, is a ratio that is manifest in some of nature’s basic structures—the growth of plant cells or the curves of an ammonite shell. For centuries artists and architects have used this ratio to produce visually pleasing proportions. Seeking a universal principle for composing modern art, Steichen experimented with the Golden Mean in the early 1920s. He studied theoreticians such as Jay Hambidge and Theodore Andrea Cook and also taught himself plane and solid geometry. He later recalled that he felt freer working within geometric constraints than working with no rules at all. Steichen was equally devoted to painting and photography for the first twenty years of his career, but sometime between 1920 and 1923, in a personal and artistic crisis, he burned and slashed all of the painted canvases in his possession, thereafter devoting himself wholly to making photographs and later serving as curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As a result, little is known of his non-photographic work from the early 1920s—a period Steichen considered the most productive of his life. The Oochens and Rabbit (Le Tournesol), c. 1920, recent bequests by the artist’s widow, Joanna T. Steichen, survived the catharsis and remained in the artist’s personal collection until his death. These hard-edge abstractions provide an in-depth look into a critical and little-known period of a major figure in 20th-century art.


by descent to Joanna T. Steichen, the artist's wife, New York; bequest to NGA, 2011