Friday, September 28, 2012

Fine Arts Friday: George Bellows: An Ashcan Classicist

The Cliff Dwellers, 1913

If you live in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., you have til October 8 to see the exhibition of paintings by American Ashcan artist, George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) at the National Gallery of Art. It is well worth the visit. Although Bellows is best known for his paintings of boxers in action, I found the most arresting of his paintings to be three portraits of children. Early in his career Bellows was encouraged by his New York City teacher, Robert Henri, to paint ordinary people, including children. Henri himself traveled every year to Ireland, where he painted portraits of poor Irish children. None of Henri's Irish portraits that I have seen, however, measure up to Bellows' portrayals of three children in the National Gallery exhibition.

All three are formal portraits and appear to incorporate a study of portraits of princes and princesses by Velasquez, Goya, and Titian. All three, despite their lower-ranking subjects, are bigger than life size, giving the portraits a monumental quality.

Here is Frankie, the Organ Boy.

Frankie, the Organ Boy, 1907

Frankie appears to be a charming, fun-loving boy, who is thrilled to have his portrait painted. He makes his living on the streets and his body is posed in a way that looks like he is raring to go for any venture that might come his way. But he is framed in formality--dark suit, a tie, a somewhat formalized pose, sitting on a dark chair, with a dark background. The formality and his charming expression almost seem at odds, but the way that Bellows has situated Frankie also gives him dignity. The chair in particular reminded me of Edward Steichen's famous photograph of J.P. Morgan, taken in 1903, where the light shining on the chair arm makes it seem like the enraged Morgan has a knife in his hand. I wonder if Bellows knew this portrait and put Frankie in the same setting, to highlight the wide difference in function and in character between the two, or if his viewers at the time also related Frankie the Organ Boy to the Morgan portrait?

 J. P. Morgan, photograph by Edward Steichen

The poignancy of Frankie's cheerful face and what it reveals of his character also brought to mind  Titian's great portrait of the 11-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, part of the National Gallery's permanent collection. In Titian's great painting, also life size, the boy's tender face sharply contrasts with his heavy clothes, medals, and insignias, all signifying the necessity for him to enter into the future that his wealth and privilege dictate. Frankie, on the other hand, seems ready to go get his own future.

Ranuccio Farnese by Titian, 1542

Bellows' Paddy Flannigan captures the young boy tough, his psychological pain hidden behind a mask of belligerence that he flaunts, along with his bare chest and shoulders, for the viewer--that is, the painter. We expect that any minute now he will pick up a cigarette and start smoking to prove his loss of childhood. We see this type of boy in many of the crowd scenes that Bellows painted of New York--Beach at Coney Island (1908), Forty-Two Kids (1907), Kids (1906), The Cliff-Dwellers (see above), River Front No. 1 (1915). Here though the emphasis is on the character of the boy not the social environs that produced it.

Paddy Flannigan, 1908

The last portrait is of the laundry girl in Bellows' residence. Here is the stance of a princess--isolated, standing at three-quarter view, patiently waiting for the formal rendering of her being. It takes seeing this portrait close up, though, to see her extreme vulnerability, in her scrawny little neck, the shyness bordering on fright in her eyes, her sharp little chin, and her sideways glance at the painter. She seems already dubious of her future, which can only bring more hard physical labor.

Little Girl in White, also known as Queenie Burnett, 1907. This painting is quite large, covering nearly the wall in its height.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Pattern of Perfection by Nancy Hale

Nancy Hale
The Pattern of Perfection by Nancy Hale (1908-1988), a collection of thirteen short stories, definitely falls into that genre disdainfully labeled by some as domestic fiction. There's even a recipe tucked into the prose.

Domestic, but not sentimental. Mostly written in the 1950s, the stories hover on  love, marriage, divorce, children, grandchildren, changes in place, and the succession of the generations. Hale's language is brisk and almost airy. Reading them is like taking a walk on a breezy warm day in March. But movement is driven not by plot; a mother returns her child to boarding school, in "Slow Boat to China"; a grandmother in New England takes her grandson for a boat ride in "Flotsam"; a young widow takes her five-year-old son to the graduation at her late husband's college. On a Halloween evening in "The Haunting," a widowed grandmother watches her daughter, newly separated from her husband and now back home with her two children, go trick or treating. Contemplation, memory, self-revelation are the themes.

Some stories center on displaced northerners in the South, as Hale was herself, moving from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1936, where she lived for the rest of her life. In the story "A Pattern of Perfection," Hale touches on disparities between the northern and southern way of life and the longing for home. "A New Place" tells of the frustration and discoveries of a northern woman recently moved to Virginia  as she attempts to meet the doyen who lives next door.

I liked all these stories by Nancy Hale, whom I encountered thanks to Frisbee: A Book Journal. Hale was born in Boston and was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale. Although her parents were artists, she grew up in the environment of proper Boston society and then shifted her venue to New York City in 1928, where she worked as an editorial assistant and part-time model for Vogue and then as a reporter and fiction writer.

The Crochet Lesson by Mary Cassatt, 1913. Hale wrote a biography of Mary Cassatt in 1975.
With her work at Vogue, Hale was conversant with the world of fashion, as she displays in her story "A Curious Lapse," in which a chic New York woman comes to Virginia to visit with her old friend and former employer. Just for fun, here is a snippet of the New Yorker's thoughts as she strolls through the little Virginia town:

"Then she passed on to Miss Holly's Dress Shop, next door. There were four dresses in the shop window. One was coin-dotted pink organdy; one striped blue-and-white chambray; the third navy linen. But it was the red print, with its little jacket displayed half off the shoulder, on which Vera's gaze seemed to focus with fatal intensity. The little dress--its price was on it, $16.95--stood out from its surroundings as if speaking to her.

"She knew exactly what should be done to it. First, of course, she would rip the white flower off the lapel of the jacket. Then the bits of machine smocking below the shoulder yoke, on the dress, would have to be ripped out and replaced with hand smocking; it would take the whole evening, but the effect gained, of excellence and quality, would be worth it. The belt of the dress would be improved by changing its buckle to a better one; she would be sure to find something on an old dress. On the lapel, in place of the flower, she would wear a good pin. The pearl circlet her mother had given her on her graduation from high school leaped to mind.

"And with the costume she would wear plain white kid pumps. There were some in Howard's, for $5.50. Plain white cotton gloves. Plain white envelope purse, like the one for $3.95 in Howard's. As for a hat--far smarter than any hat she could afford to buy would be a wreath of red and white flowers from Woolworth's, set straight on top of her head like a little crown, with a bit of red veil. The flowers would, of course, be shoddy stuff; the whole style of them would lie in their being fresh. After two or three wearings she would buy new ones.

"The whole would give a smart effect. Unusual. Clever. Striking to wear to a dessert bridge, or for an evening date at Lake Pearl.

"It was all such an art: keeping canvas shoes startlingly white by using a cake of Bon Ami; and wearing white ten-cent-store jewelry chosen for its plainness when everybody else was buying the fancy pieces; and making a hat out of a a black velvet clip and two real pink carnations; and ripping the machine tucks out of the bosom of a blouse to put them all back with a fine needle and one-fifty thread; and making pale blue batiste underclothes in the evening..."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Rawlings: A Florida Friendship

Zora Neale Hurston: a great lady.
Two Florida writers, bent on translating their Florida environs for the outside world--Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Rawlings--were friends, I was delighted to discover when I heard about the book Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by Anna Lillios.  Hurston (1891-1960) grew up in Florida, while Rawlings (1896-1953) moved to Cross Creek, Florida, in 1928.

Cast out of her family home in her teens, Hurston was an African-American of fortitude who fought  hard to attain an education and became an artist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Rawlings was a white woman from Washington, D.C., who bought her Florida farm with inheritance money from her father. Despite the gaping differences in background, these two women were natural friends joined by their shared interests in writing and their love of Florida and their communities.

By the time these women met in 1940, both had already written their most famous works. Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling in 1939, and Hurston had written Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.

Rawlings was friends with writers such as Marcia Davenport (Valley of Decision), Ellen Glasgow (In This Our Life, Pulitzer Prize 1942), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and was associated with Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel), Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her farm gate.
Hurston had forged friendships and collaborations with such Harlem literati as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson (The Book of American Spirituals), and Wallace Thurman (The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life). She was also a lifelong friend of the writer Fanny Hurst (Imitation of Life). However, Hurston's achingly beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God came under fire from such famous African-American writers as Richard Wright (Native Son), because it lacked the protest themes that Wright thought literature should carry for the fight for justice for African Americans.

At the point that Hurston and Rawlings met, Hurston was already being shoved out of the Harlem Renaissance milieu. Despite this political pressure, she stuck to her belief that African Americans had to maintain their independence and concentrate on their own education and work, an outlook that resonates the view of George Washington Carver, first president of Tuskegee University.

While it is unclear how or when the two Florida writers met, Idella Parker, author of the memoir Idella: Marjorie Rawlings' "Perfect Maid", gives an account of Hurston's first visit to Rawlings' farm. Parker writes that she was surprised to see that the expected visitor was black and "here was Mrs. Rawlings, inviting her in and sitting her down on the porch like she was the queen of England!" The two spent all afternoon together, drinking and talking, and it became clear that Ms. Hurston was in no shape to drive home. Rawlings then directed that Hurston stay with Parker in the servants' house, even though Rawlings had two empty bedrooms in the farmhouse.

Marjorie Rawlings' farmhouse in Cross Creek, Florida. She wrote at a desk on the screened porch.
In 1942, Rawlings invited Hurston to speak to her class at Florida Normal, and then to tea at her husband's segregated hotel in Saint Augustine. This caused Rawlings some internal consternation as she intimated to her friend, Edith Pope, she felt like a coward bringing Hurston into the hotel through the back stairs, since she considered Hurston "a most ingratiating personality, a brilliant mind, and [with a] fundamental wisdom that shames most whites."

Later that year Hurston wrote a letter to Rawlings in praise of Cross Creek: "You turned your inside light on their community life, and it broke like day..." and invited Rawlings to join her on her houseboat. Although encouraged by her editor Maxwell Perkins to do so, Rawlings declined, pleading involvement in a new book under difficult conditions, since Mrs. Parker had left her employ and her husband, Norman Baskins, was away at the war.

In response, Hurston wrote back that "I would be so glad to come and take everything off your hands until you are through with yours [book]. I know just what you need.... Really now, Miss Rawlings, if you find yourself losing your stride, let me help you out. I know so tragically what it means to be trying to concentrate and being nagged by the necessity of living."

Upon receipt of this letter, Marjorie Rawlings' views on race shifted dramatically. She wrote to her husband that the "Negro writer Zora Neale Hurston has done one of the most beautiful things I have ever known.... I shed tears over this woman's offer. She is an artist in her own right... She and Dr. Carver seem monumental to me. To transcend the humiliation of their position and being at the peak themselves, to have such graciousness.--Such bigness.... Her offer settles in my mind all doubts I have had about throwing myself into the fight for an honest chance for the Negro."

According to Lillios, "over the course of the decade, Rawlings would write and act in support of these rights."
Zora Neale Hurston's last home, in Fort Pierce, Florida.
When Hurston soon thereafter arrived at Rawlings' doorstep to help, they had a free-wheeling long discussion, which touched on racial issues, as reported in Rawlings' letters. This time Hurston slept in the farmhouse, "and I have never in my life been so glad that I was not a coward," Rawlings wrote her husband. "I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch [Rawlings was involved in a local law suit at the time]. I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep. It has always surprised me that my thinking is so Southern. But I felt that if I ever was to prove my humanitarian and moral beliefs, even it if it cost me the lawsuit, I must do it then."

From then on, Rawlings argued with friends and Florida public figures against racial segregation and in 1948 spoke at the African American Fisk University, staying with the university president. Over the next years, the friendship between these two women was suspended, as Hurston moved north again, and then renewed in the early 1950s, when Hurston was back in Florida. In 1952, Rawlings responded to a letter from Hurston:
Now you are at Belle Glade and I am at Cross Creek and we are both working like Lucifer trying to keep from getting kicked out of heaven, and I shall not be going South in the State, but if you happen to come prowling further North, do stop by at least for overnight or even longer. It might do us both good to compare notes from hell. I have so much to tell you. With love, Marjorie Rawlings
Zora Neale Hurston's hand-painted Christmas card to Rawlings and her husband in 1948.
But Hurston was unable to make the trip and was distraught when she learned that Rawlings had died suddenly on December 14, 1953. Writing to her friend Mary Holland, Hurston reported that she "was so depressed by the death of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings."

Lillios' account of the Hurston-Rawlings friendship is marred by superimposition of modern political correctness on both parties, although she gives Rawlings credit for changing her views and behavior toward African Americans. Rawlings was a product of her time, and we can be thankful that many people combined, via all kinds of pathways, to end segregation. But to me, Lillios' racial binoculars miss the point. Both Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Rawlings were women writers who had sought out community, loved their communities, and wrote about them in celebration. For both women, connection with and extension to others was paramount, the mother lode of human existence and therefore art. Their friendship was a natural, and we can be grateful that the pathways of these two Floridians crossed and that they drew sustenance from each other.