Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Paintings of E.E. Cummings

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As a poet, E. E. Cummings has enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the 20th century, and great critical acclaim from many different literary circles. His poetry has been widely hailed for its experimental form, typography, grammar, and word coinages, as well as for the subtlety and sensitivity of its perceptions and feeling. His nonfiction prose has been praised for its bitter wit and for the clarity and forcefulness of its expression, revealing Cummings as an intelligent, critical observer and chronicler of the modern, who, bound to no school of writing, expresses himself as an idiosyncratic individualist. His highly developed sense of the aesthetic was married to a deep skepticism toward that which was fashionable but uninformed by critical intelligence and the warmth of the human heart. Ezra Pound went so far as to place Cummings' EIMI as the second most important book of the 20th century, ahead of James Joyce's Ulysses and second only to Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God.

Less well-known, however, are Cummings' achievements as a visual artist and the extent to which they express in an entirely different medium the same aesthetic principles and rigorous artistic intelligence that inform his poetry. Cummings viewed himself as much a painter as a poet, as evidenced by the enormous amount of time and energy he devoted to this lesser-known half of his "twin obsession." Not only did Cummings spend a greater portion of his time painting than writing, he also produced thousands of pages of carefully thought-out notes concerning his own aesthetics of painting: color-theory, analysis of the human form, the "intelligence" of painting, reflections on the Masters, etc.


~ waterfall ~

While Cummings achieved substantial acclaim as an American cubist and abstract, avant-garde painter in the years between the wars, he later viewed the artistic establishment as hopelessly anti-intellectual and dropped out of the New York gallery scene, devoting the remainder of his life to painting representational work: landscapes, nudes, still lifes, and portraits. In these works Cummings continued to explore the issues and elaborate the principles that had impelled his early abstract paintings, and he brought them to bear in his later, more personal, representational work. Indeed, he deliberately shunned avant-garde circles and the critics who validated them in favor of a more domestic or private environment in which to pursue his art and his continued inquiries into color, form, and feeling. Many of the paintings in this collection, while recognizable subjects, display a wild, exuberant, and sometimes nearly fantastic use of color. As such, they merit comparison with his poetry, the greatest accomplishment of which has long been considered his bold, inventive use of language and form in the service of a modern sensibility and aesthetic that is essentially individualistic, traditional, and even romantic.

Critics have tended to divide Cummings' painterly career roughly into two stylistically differing chronological phases. The first phase, more or less from 1915-1928, covers his widely-acclaimed large-scale abstractions and his immensely popular drawings and caricatures published throughout the 1920s in the leading modernist journal, The Dial.

The second phase, covering the period from 1928 until his death in 1962, consists primarily of representational works: still lifes, landscapes, nudes, and portraits. This dichotomy of avant-garde vs. representational in Cummings' visual work has its parallel in a public vs. private dichotomy: above and beyond the popular Cummings-as-experimental-innovator of the first period, there is in the second phase the very much more private Cummings-as-aesthetic-sensualist, strikingly revealed in the wild explosions of color that are found in his landscapes and in the physical intensity of his erotic work. While the representational works are more traditional and accessible than his earlier abstracts, their use of color and form reveal a sophistication and development of technique fully as complex as the earlier work, if not more so.

When Cummings died in 1962, he left to his estate a large oeuvre of visual art, including oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings. The current collection comprises the bulk of the material he left at his death--a large number of pieces representing the width and breadth of Cummings' visual output. Included are drawings dating back to his childhood, abstract oil paintings, circus drawings, burlesque sketches, visionary landscapes in oil and watercolor, erotic art, sensuous nudes, figure drawings, portraits of friends and family, as well as rare ink drawings documenting his travels abroad in the 1920s and '30s, a critical point in his development as a visual artist.

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