Tuesday, August 18, 2009

`The Unseen Design of Things'

The discovery of the day at the Cleveland Museum of Art was “January,” painted by Grant Wood in 1940-41. Snow partially covers tepee-like stacks of corn stalks on a winter night. Visible in the foreground are tracks left by rabbits in the snow. The painting is small and hangs by itself in a corner, and feels like an anti-pastoral. The Midwestern winter is claustrophobic, reducing an Iowa corn field to a stuffy room. A quintessentially human scene is depicted without humans. Guy Davenport said of the most misunderstood of major American artists, “Wood was the subtlest of American painters.”

The museum's American collection is small but excellent – Copley, Audubon, Thomas Cole, John Sloan, George Bellows, George Luks, Winslow Homer, Emil Carlsen, Thomas Eakins, Reginald Marsh, Carl Gaertner, Charles Burchfield, and so on.

The theme of the day was memento mori, first in an 1879 painting of that title by the American William Michael Harnett. A skull rests on a volume of Shakespeare's tragedies, beside an extinguished candle and a spent hourglass. Another volume lies open and inscribed on the inside of the front cover, nearly torn from the rest of the book, is a line spoken by Hamlet: “Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.” Hamlet speaks this in the graveyard, not knowing Ophelia is already dead.

In another gallery hangs Hendrick ter Brugghen's “Saint Jerome,” painted around 1621.

The Bible translator is depicted as an old man with a white beard, weeping. In front of him rest an open book and a skull. The museum card says the image was once thought to represent Heraclitus, “largely because tears are part of the standard representation of this ancient thinker. However, Brugghen omits the other crucial key for identifying Heraclitus – a globe over which he weeps.” Among Davenport's translations from Heraclitus is this:

“The unseen design of things is more harmonious than the seen.”

1 comment:

Fran Manushkin said...

This is great! I need no longer feel guilty about loving Grant Wood.