Saturday, March 03, 2007

A hunger artist

I saw this haunting painting, Nymph and Pierrot by Middleton Manigault, today at the Columbia Museum of Art and stared at it for a long time.

It's a hypnotic, dreamlike juxtaposition: a clown standing aside a yearning, beckoning nude, both alone in a lush green valley. I think it's about sexual embarrassment; it makes me think of someone who's been made a fool of by an adulterous wife; like that early Bergman film, Sawdust and Tinsel, which had that memorably disturbing sequence of a circus clown trying to stop his wife from stripping in front of a group of drunken soldiers. Or maybe the pierrot is fearful of the temptation, or impotent; the woman looks so willing and her breasts look so warm and ripe, while he stands there frozen, looking ahead, one hand gesturing toward her, one not, like he's considering his options. Desire and foolishness, and it's the middle of the night. Maybe he dreamed her. Maybe she's something he can't have.

They are beautifully draped by a moist, fertile midnight background, creatures of the night and of the moment; alone but not lonely, because each exists in relation to the other: he's her frozen quarry, she's his voluptuous torment. It's a startling piece of work.

The artist is Middleton Manigault, who is not especially well-known but who apparently lived a tormented artistic existence; almost a Kafkaesque existence, as he had a nervous breakdown, destroyed some 200 of his own paintings, and starved himself to death. You can read his story here.

Speaking of suicidal depressives, the Columbia Museum of Art's new exhibit "A Foreign Affair: American Artists Abroad," also introduced me to the work of Kay Sage, wife of the Surrealist Yves Tanguy, and her work kind of favors his. They both seem to have this attraction to lonely, dreamy abstract landscapes. The one at the museum was titled The Wind in a Corner; I can't find any images of it on-line, but most of what I did find reminded me of it, as she apparently went through this long phase of having draped figures placed in spatial contrast to other objects. Anyway, I found it interesting, even if I can't remember the details well enough to describe it.

I also liked several unusual landscapes: Jane Peterson's aquaceous impasto of Venice, Ben Benn's fervent thick mad color, the slab of brown brushwork that defines a dirt road in William Merritt Chase's work; the silvery texture of the fish in a Chase still life, the way the human face yields such a wide variety of shapes and colors in William Henry Johnson's Fisherman at Kerteminde; Mary Cassatt's Baby Smiling at his Mother, one of her many brilliantly colored domestic pietas.

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