Sunday, April 26, 2015

Paintings by Tennessee Williams: "The Playwright and the Painter" at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

I was not going to review this. Lately, too many celebrity art shows have turned out to be embarrassing spectacles, evidence that talent doesn't always translate across different media, so when I learned that a show of Tennessee Williams' paintings was opening at the Ogden Museum, I tried to avoid it entirely. Then I stumbled into it by accident, and while some of these works do border on embarrassing, they also possess a poignant eloquence that reflects the celebrated playwright's troubled yet transcendent psyche. Some suggest the daubings of a decadent yet oddly innocent child, but some of them also radiate an inexplicable mysticism somewhere between William Blake and Sister Gertrude Morgan, as we see in She Sang Beyond the Genius of the Sea, above left.

Named for a poem by Wallace Stevens, it features a dishevelled sea siren emerging on a beach, waving her trident as two guys slog through the brine, one toward the beach, the other toward the far horizon. Fleshy yet evanescent, such scenes distill Williams' narrative proclivities into messy, symbolic daydreams where men and women appear roiled by the whispers of their inner angels and demons. As a playwright, he was a master of human pathos, but as a painter he was a folk artist adrift in a sea of social intrigue as we see in his Sulla Terrazza della Signora Stone, left, painting of an ageing actress and a Roman gigolo. Here he uses his brush to hint at the complexities that underlie the social veneer, and if it suggests a scene from a play, it was actually based on his first novel. If there is any doubt that these canvases are the work of Williams' inner child, his bloody beach scene featuring Truman Capote as a killer baby in diapers, above, illustrates the puerile petulance that ensues when literary friendships go bad. Unlike much celebrity art today, these works were personal ruminations that he shared with a select few confidants. Most were collected by his longtime Key West friend, David Wolkowsky. This is their first formal museum exhibition. ~Bookhardt /The Playwright and the Painter: Paintings by Tennessee Williams, Through May 31, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.