Art Thoughts, Week 22 -- Avery & Mystery

Nursemaid, Milton Avery, (American, 1893—1965), 1934, oil on canvas, BF 961.

The story goes that Dr. Barnes, upon seeing this painting leaning against a wall in a New York gallery storeroom, was immediately taken with it, and bought it on the spot. I don’t believe he ever owned another Avery; and it is the only one in the collection. And, as is typical in the Barnes Foundation’s small stable of artists represented by a single piece, the signature painting is often atypical of their work. This painting is somewhat an atypical Avery, in that it has a decidedly dark emotion.

It is, as Dr. Barnes noticed straight away, a very arresting picture. Three figures stand, one of them seemingly talking, on a beach which curves around behind them in a hairpin, culminating in a peninsular tuft of trees; there is a cursorily-drawn, buffeted little boat on the navy and ultramarine waters. Moreover, there is a curious darkness which seems to hang over the work; even the palette-knifed off-white of the nursemaid’s great-coat seems shadowy. This darkness also permeates the sky, giving a sense of “impending doom” (which also happens to be my wife’s euphemism for autumn), much like the inky electric storm that develops around the Sta-Puff marshmallow ghost in the movie Ghostbusters II. That is, there seems to be a distinct foreboding; an atmosphere just beginning to ripen towards an intensifying and mysterious conclusion.

But what about these figures who populate (or find themselves) in this darkening landscape? There are three: a sturdy, dark woman wearing a shamrock green swimsuit, talking to a monumental, white-garbed nursemaid, whose charge is a tiny slip of a child, leaning silently by the nursemaid. The figure in green and the pink child seem like visitors; they are not entirely comfortable in the landscape. The nursemaid however seems more integral to the dark emotion of the scene: she is part of the scenery. And one look at her face convinces you of this, and almost prevents you thereafter from looking at anything else in the painting in the same way. It is a face simultaneously piercing and dully masklike; ghostly ephemeral, yet very concrete. This face given by Avery to the nursemaid even inspires a bit of horror in me – it is reminiscent of those ambiguously grinning personifications of the moon phases found sometimes on old-style calendars. Here is the blacked-out new moon staring back at us, confronting us – supposed to be invisible, but somehow still gazing unnervingly; inscrutably.

The moon has for centuries – and by myriad cultures – been endowed with more mystery, deifications and mythology than almost every other heavenly body. It has been revered as both mother and seducer; a maddening force (think of the word “luna-cy”) and a beautiful, reassuring presence. A nursemaid as a mysterious new moon; her coat glowing like a lit pearl, but her face obscured like a fading, mocking mask? Is she protector or harmer? – it’s unsure. We are told in biblical texts that Satan masquerades as an “angel of light” deceiving and devouring the straying believer. Is this nursemaid a guardian angel – as Avery seems to have portrayed her on the surface – or is she a spirit disguised and bringing harm, just now reflected in the ensuing darkness swimming around her presence? Or; is she simply a “mama bear”, whose ire’s been piqued by a nosy beach painter, who himself is unconsciously staring at this odd trio on a normal, storm-threatening afternoon?

the fourth samba  – (Saturday, 19 July, 2008)  

Reminds me a bit of Bob Thompson whom I love.

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