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A screenplay for a Hollywood biopic about early 20th-century Utah artist A.B. Wright might open like this:
FRANCE A SUNNY DAY
Exiled Utah artist and released prisoner of war Alma Wright (Brad Pitt, in aging makeup to make him appear 70-something) rides a donkey to the sleepy village of Le Bugue, France. His dog, Mabel, trots obediently behind.
Minutes later, the dog scratches on the cottage door and Wright's mistress Jeanne (Angelica Huston, no makeup) opens it to see a group of children leading Alma's donkey that they found grazing riderless in a field.
Jeanne runs down the road to find Alma lying by the side of the road. He's dead, but still warm.
(kissing Alma's forehead)
"Adieu, mon artiste Americain."
As Jeanne weeps, the camera ZOOMS OUT to a long shot of the French countryside that Alma loved to paint.
FADE TO FLASHBACK
Salt Lake City, 1880. A young Alma is carrying a paint box, the under-construction Mormon Temple rises in the background.
Though there's no movie treatment in the works about early 20th-century Utah artist Alma Brockerman Wright, his colorful and mysterious life continues to intrigue academics and art lovers.
Wright is in the pantheon of Utah artistic pioneers who studied in Paris, then returned to paint the sacred interiors of early Mormon temples and influence generations of Western artists who followed. Wright went on to lead the University of Utah's Art Department in the 1930s.
But less well known is Wright's private life, which included years in Paris when it was the center of western culture. But Wright returned to rough-edged and pious Utah with a carefully trimmed moustache and "sophisticated" ways that put him at odds with his hometown.
Had Wright lived today, the media would have labeled him "Utah's bad boy of art" for the rumors of sexual misconduct and lechery that erupted at the University of Utah.
If you pick up nearly any history of Utah art, you'll find a smirking reference to Wright's firing at the U. Here's one note, for example, from Utah Painting and Sculpture: "Wright left for France for the rest of his life after a secret campus investigation of Wright's conduct around departmental models, and just preceding the appearance on campus of an irate, life-threatening Salt Lake City husband."
But new documents uncovered this month may finally, after 75 years, clear Wright's name.
Image from the past • This spring, Logan antiques dealer Sean Fullmer found a 1930 nude with Wright's signature carved into the boards of the painting's canvas spreader at a Salt Lake City antique shop.
"It was so dirty, it looked like someone had splattered black paint on it," Fullmer says. "I knew it was an A.B. Wright. I hung it in my shop. I loved looking at it every day."
Russ Fjeldsted, who owns a sporting goods store in Logan, saw the painting and fell in love with the image of the reclining figure. An amateur artist and art historian, Fjeldsted was even more intrigued that someone had scraped off the model's face. Perhaps that to protect the model's identity, Fullmer believes.
After reading the accounts of Wright's scandalous behavior, Fjeldsted started digging into the painter's past.
Meanwhile, Kirk Henrichsen, a curator at the LDS Church History Museum has been researching Wright for the last 20 years, with the intention of writing a book on the artist's life.
All this prompts a closer look at Wright, as work by Utah artists of his generation is experiencing an upswing of interest by collectors and the public. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Church History and Art, for instance, are currently sponsoring a joint exhibition of the work of painter LeConte Steward, a close friend of Wright, who replaced him as chairman of the University of Utah's Art Department.
The 'Art missions' • Wright was in the second wave of Utah artists who traveled to France to study art around the turn of the 20th century. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged the journeys to Paris as "art missions" to train sculptors and painters, including John Hafen and J.T. Harwood, in artistic skills so they could decorate the sacred interiors of the temples being built across North America.
Wright returned from Paris in the 1920s, where he had studied and painted alongside painter Lee Greene Richards and Utah's most famous sculptor, Mahonri Young. Wright brought with him a level of sophistication rarely seen in Salt Lake City. The former Avenues neighborhood boy returned with charming manners. He had also become an expert with a sword.
"A.B. Wright was handsome and dashing," says Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art. "He was an accomplished fencer in his day."
Despite Wright's secularizing experience in Paris, he was passionate about painting murals in LDS temples in Hawaii; Alberta, Canada, and Arizona.
Hendrichsen, at the Church History Museum, surmises that Wright and his wife Alice, may have reached an "understanding" after her husband's second trip to Europe. She continued to live in their house in California, while Wright apparently led a bachelor's existence in Salt Lake City. "It was a very modern arrangement for the time," Hendrichsen says.
Despite Wright's European airs, he was well-liked by his students and peers, particularly artists Stewart and Young. In 1932, he was appointed chairman of the University of Utah's Art Department.
Rumors of a "compromising situation" • But one Utah artist Mabel Frazer wasn't charmed by the dandified Wright. She was a University of Utah instructor and artist known for her eccentricity, such as her moral crusades and for her habit of sleeping in a piano.
Frazer, who died in 1981, once told Swanson: "I have a bit of 'damn it all to hell' in me."
In the male-dominated art world of Utah and beyond, Frazer was passed over when the department chose Wright as chairman and her resentment simmered, Swanson says. "She was a person known for her complaints, criticisms and sarcasm."
In the spring of 1937, Frazer claimed she surprised Wright, who was 57 at the time, in a "compromising situation" with a student who was posing nude. The woman is believed to have been the subject of Wright's "Myrtle the Model," painted the same year.
Frazer presented University of Utah President George Thomas with a list of sexual offenses involving at least five female students including allegations of rape and that Wright had paid for an art model's abortion and demanded Wright be fired.
The long-accepted assumption of Wright's guilt was thrown into question last week when Fjeldsted, with the help of Marriott Library archivist Kirk Baddley , uncovered documents in the U. archives that show Wright was ultimately exonerated of all the sexual misconduct allegations.
Later in 1937, Thomas convened a panel of 20 faculty members to investigate the allegations against Wright, which led to the panel unanimously clearing the artist.
In a reprimand to Mabel Frazer, Thomas referred to similar charges of sexual misconduct that Frazer had brought a decade earlier against the U.'s nurse. "Now comes an attempt to involve Professor Wright in a like immoral sex scandal. This one, like [the earlier] case was based upon irrational surmises and rumors two or three times removed."
The model's so-called abortion turned out to be an appendectomy, according to records in the U.'s archives from St. Mark's Hospital.
Wright's wife Alice, still living in California, denied Frazer's story that she and her husband had separated over the charges that her husband "had either seduced or raped a young woman." In a letter defending her husband written to Thomas, Alice Wright added: "The reasons for our living apart are matters of private arrangement between him and me and concern no one else."
Frazer, threatened with firing, wrote a letter of apology to Wright. Yet the rumors about Wright's allegedly scandalous conduct continued to spread through the next school year. "Even though he was exonerated, A.B. told them, "The hell with it, I'm going to France," Fjeldsted explains.
Says Hendrichsen: "Had he stayed, you have to wonder if he would have become the local hero that LeConte Stewart is. Or whether he would have drifted into second-tier status."
After Wright's departure as chairman, Frazer was passed over yet again, this time for LeConte Stewart. Yet Swanson maintains that the mostly forgotten Frazer was one of Utah's significant artists.
"A.B. Wright could not hold a candle to Mable Frazer at her best," the curator says. "She was the superior artist. She had raw power, freshness. She had originality he just didn't have. But her personality held her back."
An artist in exile • Wright took the university's investigation and the relentless gossip as the final humiliation from straight-laced Utah. He enlisted a student to drive him to the train station the fall of 1937, vowing: "I'm going where I will be appreciated."
Wright arrived in Paris in November 1937, where he wrote home to Thomas: "I am among friends and have no fixed address also I intend leaving for the country, as soon as possible, to live under economical and restful conditions and to work."
He was apparently settled in rural France east of Bordeaux when World War II broke out in 1939. Most of Western Europe was occupied by the Germans.
Wright, according letters written by friends and family, was picked up as an American citizen and confined in an internment camp for the rest of the war. Utah friends sent the artist painting supplies through the Red Cross, and he continued to work.
Hendrichsen, who visited Wright's haunts around Limoges, doubts the prison camp myth. "As far as I've been able to tell there were no internment camps near the area," Hendrichsen says. "His paintings that I found in France were of pastoral scenes and bridges over rivers no indication of conflict or violence."
When the war ended, Wright, in his 70s, was living in the village of Le Bugue, with his mistress, Jeanne Warnet. The artist sold a few paintings, worked the friend's farm on which he was living, and became a beloved member of the community as the artiste Américain.
Mahonri Young visited Wright in Le Bugue. "Al and Jeanne are making the midday meal which we will eat under their wide fig tree surrounded by chickens … The house is an old farm house with tiled roof, a barn attached, several other buildings all attached, surrounded by a stone wall. … I think altogether they are very comfortable, all things considered. … I rather hate to leave as the chance of my seeing these good people again is very small. I wouldn't have missed coming for anything."
Young was right. Three years later, Wright was dead. "[Wright] had been on a visit to friends on a donkey," Young wrote to Utah artist Jack Sears. "When he didn't come home at the hour expected, the dog came back alone. Then, some children brought back the donkey they had found wandering about alone. Al was found on the ground already dead but still warm. He must have died from a heart attack that carried him off."
Jeanne Warnet died in 1971 and was buried in Le Bugue Cemetery next to Wright.
Fjeldsted sees Wright as Utah's misunderstood prodigal son: "I'd like to bring him back from France, his memory at least, and say, 'A.B., welcome home to Utah.' "
SALT LAKE CITY, 1897 STUDIO FLOODED WITH NATURAL LIGHT MORNING
Twenty-year old Alma Wright, uncomfortably, poses nude for friend and fellow art student Mahonri Young. As Young sketches, he joshes Alma.
"If we're going to go to Paris to study art, you'll need to loosen up, Alma. The human body is a beautiful thing except for maybe yours." (He tosses a broken piece of charcoal at Alma.)
You know, Mahonri, I'm not sure France is for me. I've got all the landscape and models I need right here in Utah. But you bring back some sketches of those French girls then I'll decide.
CUT TO BLACK