Jack Kerouac as Artist

img396

Kerouac: Beat Painting is the catalogue for an exhibition held at Museo MAGA, Gallarate (2 December 2017-22 April 2018) of the art of Jack Kerouac (1922-1968). Jack Kerouac was one of the founders of – and most famous member of – the Beat Generation of the 1950s and early 1960s. He was elevated to fame and notoriety by the success of On The Road (1957) and series of popular semi-autobiographical novels published thereafter. The seminal On The Road established many of the staples of Beat counter culture: Buddhism and Oriental spirituality, jazz, black culture, drugs, drink, sexual freedom and the lure of the road.

Kerouac was an amateur artist, something that he mentioned in his writings. The examples exhibited in Gallarate included drawings and paintings on paper and canvas. Subjects are portraits, symbolic tableaux, isolated figures, abstracts, religious imagery, scenes of everyday life, a handful of landscapes and doodles. There are palimpsests within which overall pattern and figural forms interact. There is one scene of boats on shore. There is a pencil drawing of a sea view from the roof terrace of Burroughs’ Tangiers residence, Hotel El Muniria. Kerouac visited his friend in 1957 and (being a skilled and speedy typist) he typed up the manuscript of Naked Lunch – until it gave him nightmares.

The portraits are symbolic portraits, portraits of famous personalities (including Truman Capote and Joan Crawford) and some generic figures. There are a few recognisable portraits of people Kerouac knew, including his father, lover Dody Muller and a powerful profile of William Burroughs.

There are images which depict memories of family scenes from Kerouac’s childhood, reframed as religious scene. His strongly Catholic upbringing coloured his outlook – no more obviously than in his conception of his family life. The death of his brother Gerard was treated by Kerouac as nothing less than the death of saint or a holy innocent. There are drawings of crucifixion crosses without Christ figures. There is a painting of a sacred heart which has a touch of Guston to it – although made before Guston’s celebrated return to figuration in 1968-9. Other images are related to mandalas, cosmic forms and over-layered figures (referring to reincarnation?) which are connected to Buddhism. Much of Kerouac’s thoughts about spirituality revolved around developing a syncretic synthesis of Buddhism and Catholicism.

During 1958-1960 Kerouac had an affair with Dody Muller, a painter who introduced him to abstract art first hand. The art of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists impressed Kerouac and influenced his own art. He was friends with Franz Kline and worked alongside his neighbour in Northport, NY painter Stanley Twardowicz. Some of Kerouac’s art could be described as Abstract Expressionist. His abstracts include brushed and puddled paint, also finger painting. The art is roughly and lightly worked, with much of the ground showing through. A pastel of blurred forms is vaporous, contrasting with the visceral impasto and strong forms of paintings, some with metallic paint – an aspect of Pollock’s painting that he may have picked up from artist friends. Kerouac spent time in San Francisco, which had a vigorous abstract art scene, which he would have known about.

Kerouac wrote “USE BRUSH SPONTANEOUSLY without drawing; without long pause or delay; without erasing… pile it on.” This accords to the principle of automatism of the Abstract Expressionists which had been taken the concept from Surrealism. “28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” That refers to writing but equally apply to Kerouac’s art.

In some respects this lack of revision accords with the Beat idea of creativity untrammelled, in a version of stream-of-consciousness monologue. Likewise, the directness of application was in line with Kerouac’s aesthetic of personal directness, which differed from Burroughs’ aesthetic of using mechanical means to process pre-existing material, as we find in the Cut-Ups.

The Beats often debated art, especially Cézanne, Van Gogh, the ideas of Artaud and the example of William Blake, an eccentric visionary poet who also made art. There are obvious links between be-bop jazz, Charlie Parker, Action Painting, improvisation and Kerouac’s creative output, which is briefly covered in catalogue texts.

There are certain characteristics common to amateur artists that we can discern in Kerouac’s art: frequent changes of idioms, experimental use of materials which are widely divergent, a lack of sustained effort to forge a consistent style, a wide variety of genre and subjects, inconsistent palette, modest size, cheap craft materials. The majority of pictures are on paper, with some sheets from a spiral-bound sketchbook.

It is clear from these examples that Kerouac is classifiable as an amateur. The art manifests an absence of skill which contrasts with the ingrained care and flair for language abundant in his writing. One of the essential points of amateur artists is that their production does not have a core – it is episodic not serial in nature. This results in not an erratic artist but effectively a dozen artists existing in one creator, most unrelated to each other.

Almost none of the sheets are dated. One question that is not resolved in the catalogue texts is how representative of his output as a whole this selection is. With the work of an unknown/little-known artist it is fundamental to use early publications to outline the extent of the corpus. This information fundamentally shapes our view of what we are seeing and is a basis for later studies.

How Beat are these pictures? Probably more Beat in approach and tone rather than content. What does Beat mean in terms of content? The life of the Beats and people following the ostensible Beat lifestyle; art encapsulating the Beat worldview; the subjects of Beat writings, namely refuseniks and the refused, junkies and drifters, radiant rent boys and beatific whores, truth-seekers and vision-chasers, petty criminals and cracked prophets. It is hard to find much of this in terms of imagery in Kerouac’s art.

This raises the question, is everything that Kerouac produced Beat? That is, is everything creative that Kerouac produced during maturity necessarily congruent with Beat ideas? Do the most idiosyncratic fusions of personal memories and religious associations function publically in a Beat manner at all? And why should they? It could be asserted that the Beat movement had little by way of aesthetic programme; its principle of freeing the individual from group-enforced convention covers the free expression of Beat creators and Beat followers. That should include Kerouac’s art, which we could call “Beat enabled” if not “Beat directed”.

How serious was Kerouac as an artist? It is hard to tell. In some respects his art is similar to that of Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, both in approach and style. Although Kerouac was emotionally attached to art making and often mentioned that in his letters, judging his art – albeit on this limited selection and in ignorance of the composition of his visual corpus – suggests that he did not convert that affiliation into a sustained effort.

Catalogue texts discuss Kerouac’s contacts with artists, links between his writing and art, his use of religious symbolism and his improvisation in art and writing. All works are reproduced in colour. Generally these are high quality but a few photographs of art are not adequately focused. That should not detract from the pleasure readers will have discerning links between the author’s writings and his art.

 

Sandrina Bandera, Alessandro Castiglioni, Emma Zanella (eds.), Kerouac: Beat Painting, Skira/MAGA, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 87 col. illus., $39.95/C$50/£30/€34, ISBN 978 88 572 37794

© Alexander Adams

Advertisements

Degas’s Human Animals

Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, about 1896-99

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, (c. 1896-9), charcoal and pastel on paper, 28 x 47 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.248), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection (National Gallery, 20 September 2017-30 April 2018) is an exhibition of drawings, paintings and sculpture, mostly loaned from the collection of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. It is held to mark the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Twenty-two paintings, pastels and drawings from the huge and wide-ranging art collection of Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) are united with a Degas pastel Burrell donated to Berwick-on-Tweed Museum and a handful of other Degas works to form a reasonable display of some of Degas’s typical subjects. Portraits, early academic studies, prints and landscapes are missing from the selection.

Degas became the quintessential modern artist by turning away from the classical art he knew so well and instead using poses taken from everyday life. His is the first art that features figures which slouch, stretch, yawn and scratch. Whereas these actions might have been confined to minor supporting characters or used in genre paintings for to moral or satirical purpose, Degas is the first to take such actions and present them without overt comment. We see figures contorted in instances of private ablution.

Woman in a Tub, about 1896-1901

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub (c. 1896-1901), pastel on paper, 60.8 × 84.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.236), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Here we have humanity as it is, sometimes ungainly, sometimes ugly. Critics saw this and criticised Degas for treating human beings – and especially women – as animals. Of course, the day’s convention dictated that Degas’s images of human animals were considered unsightly treatment of the fairer sex. The aura of respect and romance regarding a woman’s figure was overturned in the series of Toilettes. Even in the portraits of woman there is the impression of imbalance and awkwardness that would become a commonplace aspect of Modernist art. Subjects are placed off centre, stiff, distracted, vulnerable – the opposite of the projections of confidence, authority and contentment that were standard in society portraiture. In group portraits such as that of the Bellelli family (c. 1867) and Sulking (c. 1870) we see the imperfect unions of temperamentally contrasting individuals in relationships.

Jockeys in the Rain, about 1883-86[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, (c. 1883-6), pastel on tracing paper, 46.9 x 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.241), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas had a keen interest in horses and studied animal locomotion. In the race-course scenes such as Jockeys in the Rain (c. 1883-6) the nervous tension of horses and men about to race is conveyed through the alert heads and raised forelegs of the horses. A drawing shows a horse exhausted after a race. It is unknown how much Degas knew of sequential photography of animal locomotion.

The End of the Race, about 1882

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The End of the Race, (c. 1882-90), chalk on tracing paper, 14.6 × 19.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.233), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Sir William Burrell was a shipping magnate who built an eclectic collection. Although rich, he was unable to compete with the American magnate collectors, and his Degas works are mainly small and inexpensive works on paper. There are a number of larger works. The outstanding work in the group is a portrait of art critic Edmond Duranty (1879) in his study, a picture which has not travelled to London for the display. The catalogue essay by Vivien Hamilton discusses the detailed history of Burrell’s collection of Degas, much of it informed by his friendship with Alexander Reid (1854-1928), the Scottish art dealer who had been friends with Vincent and Theo van Gogh and had conducted picture-trading business with the latter.

Burrell’s collection of Degas (which tended to be on loan to museums rather than in his home) includes pieces various in subject, medium and finish. There are highly finished oil paintings on canvas, oil essence paintings on paper and densely worked pastels. A revealing drawing on canvas (c. 1897) of a woman washing herself over a basin is barely started.

Woman Bathing, about 1897

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman at her Toilette (c. 1897), pastel on canvas, 78.7 × 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.229), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

As an art work it is unsatisfying but as studio material witnessing the creative process it is interesting. Degas sketched out the whole composition in black and then roughly applied colour to some of the background, dresser top and hair but none to the basin or the skin of the body.

Girl Looking Through Field Glasses, about 1866-72

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman looking through Field Glasses, (c. 1869), pencil and oil (essence) on paper, 32 × 18.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.239), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

An early oil sketch on paper shows a spectator at a horse race, looking towards us through field glasses. There are several scenes of ballerinas practising, made in Degas’s early tight and realistic style.

 

The Green Room, about 1877-82

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Preparation for the Class (c. 1877), pastel on paper, 58 x 83 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.238), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

The realism is relative. The veracity of Degas’s observations is condensed into compilations of poses and figures which are fictitious. His frequent visits to the opera meant that the artist became familiar with poses, costumes, attitudes and settings, which he could combine according to his aesthetic aims.

Other works include some excellent nudes in pastel and a scene two women at a jeweller’s shop.

The Jewels, about 1887

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, At the Jewellers, (c. 1887), pastel on paper, 71.2 x 49 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.228), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas looked at human behaviour in anthropological terms, catching their expressions and body language as subjects interacted. This can be seen in the tableaux set in laundries, cafés and milliner’s shops. The subjects engage in work, leisure or shopping in ways that appear as though they are unaware they are being observed. Actually, these pictures were never created in situ – Degas often worked from memory, adjusted or invented settings and had models pose in his studio. The influence of photography can be seen in the odd cropping and decentred compositions, regardless of the fact actual photographs apparently almost never served as sources. (See especially Place de la Concorde (1876).) On a few occasions at the end of his life he used photographs as sources. His maxim was to create something artificial from memory and then add an accent of nature to make it persuasive.

Another essay explains the artist’s materials and techniques. Technical analysis has advanced in recent years. (For discussion of this see these article: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/degas-themes-and-finish/  and http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/) Degas was unusual among the Impressionists in his use of many academic techniques, wide range of materials and his adoption of pastel and mixed media. This makes Degas’s art rewarding and surprising to researchers of his materials.

This excellent and enjoyable exhibition (and catalogue) are recommended.

 

*     *     *     *

 

Degas and his Model is a first full English translation of a text published in 1919, published in two issues of Mercure de France. The author is Alice Michel – apparently a nom de plume. It purports to be the memoirs of a model called Pauline, who modelled for Degas over 1900-1910. There is debate about the authenticity of text, which seems to have been at least assisted by a professional writer. If it is a fake, it is a good one. It is full of both expected information and unexpected touches that convey have the touch of intimate observation – quite like a Degas pastel.

The short book tells us of Pauline’s experience of working for Degas as he worked on a Plastiline sculpture. Degas gives her a difficult pose and berates her when she struggles to hold the pose or requires breaks. He is demanding and impatient. He evades discussing or showing his art, though he is curious and a touch possessive when models talk about modelling for other artists. His studio is cluttered and dirty, as he forbids his servant from cleaning except around the coal stove. It is gloomy because the windows are covered to protect his eyes, which had grown sensitive by this time. (The 1900-1910 period was Degas’s last period of production. His blindness curtailed his productivity thereafter; in 1912 he was forced to leave his apartment and it is thought he made no work between 1912 and his death in 1917.) In a touching scene, he asks Pauline to tell him the colour of the pastel he is holding, demonstrating how damaged his eyesight was.

The account centres on the sessions for a statuette of a woman standing on one leg and studying the sole of her foot. It was a stressful pose and the pay was poor. The artist would have to feel her body sometimes as he worked on the figurine. He would use a compass or callipers to measure her dimensions. On many days he would grumble about the cost of everyday items and mock the pursuit of honours by artists. Yet he could also be kind and thoughtful. He would sing minuets from operas and mutter outlandish fables while he worked. There would be a touch of banter between artist and model and he would sometimes mention his past travels but he was wary about talking more generally about his ideas on art. There is very little about specific works of art by Degas or his great collection. Pauline may have been observant but Degas was reticent and volunteered to show her very little.

Degas and his Model is a glimpse of Degas in his twilight: nearly blind, frail, tired, working slowly but still working.

Alice Michel, Jeff Nagy (trans.), Degas and His Model, David Zwirner Books, 2017, paperback, 88pp, no illus., $12.95, ISBN 978 1 941 701 553

Vivien Hamilton et al., Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection, The National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 112pp, 50 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1857096255