Monday, June 15, 2009

Kansas City 26.11.1991: Sleeping Dogs and Kinetic Murals

Random observations, Nelson Art Museum, Kansas City: at an exhibit of photographs by Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a picture of a dog asleep on its side beneath a window, with an inscription, Los sueños han de creerse. The commentary plaque says Alvarez Bravo often photographed sleeping dogs because of their obliviousness and imperviousness to human interference.

A painting, “Scenes from the Life of St. Nicholas,” by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend, fl. Ca. 1482-99, has clerics (young men) unclad in bed together. The legend is that they were killed by the landlord in a robbery, as they slept, and St. Nicholas raised them from the dead.

A Painting, “The Illness of Pierrot,” by Thomas Couture, shows a stupid doctor unable to figure out how to diagnose the illness of Pierrot, who lies in a stupor, with lobster shells and empty wine bottles about his bed. A Harlequin clad in bright-patched costume weeps, his back turned to the scene, face to the wall. An inscription in the upper right-hand corner reads, La science fait voir à ce docteur ce qui n’est pas et l’empêche de voir à ce que tout le monde devine.

Who is Harlequin? Does he appear in early 19th-century paintings as a protest vs. Enlightenment rationally, a vestige of that covert subterranean knowledge of an agrarian world suppressed by that rationality?

And Pierrot? Isn’t he the same figure who’s in the Rouault paintings that bowled me over in the Phillips Museum in D.C.? Are these stock figures? When do they appear?

Rose Ducreux, 1761-1802, an exquisite portraitist, but for long her paintings were attributed to Jacques Louis David or one of his (male) disciples.

Beautiful small paintings of a Seville scene by Emilio Sanchez-Perrier, 19th-century Spanish painter—who did both Seville and Paris scenes. I’d like to know more about him.

What strikes me in the Thomas Hart Benton murals is the twisted energy, not of the paintings themselves, but of the people. All in a kinetic choreography, but it’s not flowing and free—bodies are contorted with malevolent energy. This seems to be Benton’s commentary on American life—scenes of savage slaughter of native Americans, enslavement of blacks, retribution of the native Americans—as though the energy we represent as a nation has from its outset been twisted in a destructive direction, with religion as a prop for this perversion (in a panel of the founding of the country, colonial settlers pray after killing the native Americans, and then are slaughtered in revenge).

And a theme of the enactment of violence vs. women: it’s a mother and child the native peoples kill in this scene, and a powerful mural of Hollywood has a Jean Harloweish figure scantily clad in the middle, the technological energy all around (machines, tinsel) iconizing her even as they bleed her of life. Violence vs. nature (mother) spatially extended by technology. This is reminiscent of the Diego Rivera mural in the Bellas Artes museum in Mexico City.

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