Art Thoughts, Week 23 -- Settanni & Joy

Negro Figure, Luigi Settanni, American, (1908—1984), c. 1940, oil on canvas, BF 2037.

Sitting on a veranda as I write, surrounded by the ebb and flow of cicada chatter, I remember the distinct pleasure of a break from hot labor on a porch swing. The subdued lilting of that seated pause was a typical summertime feature for me while growing up (and still is when visiting my family’s house.)

“Topsy”, as the Negro Figure is more colorfully known, clearly realizes the pleasure of porch swings as well. Her sprawling, lanky pose in the hefty, navy-blue swing in this Settanni painting makes this clear. There is also an obvious expression of joy and relaxation, not only in her gesture, but also in her face…though it has a bit of the pasted-on doll face to it, sketchily rendered by Settanni as it is. But Settanni was never terribly concerned with facial messages; he was much more interested in a two-part “expressive relationship” if you will – and perhaps this was the native-born Italian in him: (1) the expressiveness of the pictured figure’s bodily movement, and (2) the implied but necessary movement of the artist/depicter in kind, in reaction to what was being painted. This was crucial to his identification with the subject, and indeed helps our, the viewers’ identification as well.

This African-American woman is very expressive in her movement. There is something of the caryatid about her. But she is a domestic caryatid as opposed to Modigliani’s decorative caryatid, which is more concerned with itself than with what it’s supporting. But what is Topsy supporting? She seems to be holding up a writhing, amoebic form of emerald and grass, Atlas-like, but with her happy, ragdoll arms. Now, some may find the following assertion offensive, but it only has a racial cast because of Settanni’s choice to depict an African-American woman in 1940: given the time period and possible location this was painted (southern Florida), along with her work-style clothing, it’s possible Topsy was a domestic laborer, accustomed to hard, sometimes tedious, work. Thinking of her in this way though is useful: it brings us back to the swing as a welcoming pause; part of the simple summer antidote to a hot, workaday existence. By lifting her hands, she is both holding up the drudgeries of the day with her joy, and harking back to that old African-American refrain of “laughing to keep from crying” – continued praise and even levity among adversity – which is actually common to all oppressed peoples still holding on to a shredded hope. Thus, even in her likely dull day, Topsy is able to lift her hands with a joie de vivre which is admirable – and infectious. (The fact that Settanni was able to notice this and desire to depict it is a reminder that the eponymous French phrase has been used to describe his own painting style – and that he was intimately connected to the Barnes Foundation and supported by Dr. Barnes himself for decades.)

As always (and especially in this case) to say these things is hopefully to elicit from the work that which is already there, rather than conjure up non-existent gewgaws, which is so easy (and tempting) for an art writer to do. There is always that danger. However, we can know instinctually that there is a skilled joy evident in this painting; Settanni has conveyed this well. This is the joying in contrast – the cool breeze treasured all the more for dispelling the blast of heat before it. This much at least I must say, having experienced it, is incontrovertible.

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