Monday, August 17, 2009

One Bad Movie and One Great Painting

Regular readers will no doubt recall I am a proud member of the Museum of Modern Art. Recently I doubled the pleasure of my membership by seeing a movie and touring a gallery. The film I saw was Night Nurse made by William Wellman. It stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck and, according to IMDB, was made in 25 days between April and May of 1931 and then released three months later in New York. It is not a work of art, though the opening tracking shots do indicate a desire to try something inventive. You get the feeling, though, that as the Depression worsened, they ran out of money to finish it as planned. Wellman was a renowned director who had done Wings earlier, a big silent hit, and just weeks before Public Enemy with James Cagney. Night Nurse, which has something to do with good bootleggers and bad bootleggers and good doctors and bad doctors all battling it out, ends with Stanwyck, the Night Nurse, helping the good bootleggers to go straight and working with the good doctors to guarantee that the bad doctors never practice medicine again. When the film was over and the lights came on again, I overheard a very old man in the audience exclaim with refreshing disdain, “How did they ever get away with inflicting that piece of junk on the American public in 1931?” Oh, one other thing. Clark Gable is one of the bad bootleggers in this film and it is one of 12, yes 12, films that he made in 1931. He’s not wearing a mustache and he does nothing at all to distinguish himself.

Having sampled the charms of MoMA’s cinema collection, I thought I’d give a gallery a try and experiment with my own idea of concentrating on just a few works of art during a visit. In fact, I settled on one – Picasso’s monumental “The Girl Before a Mirror” painted apparently in one day on March 14, 1932. I decided to stand there as long as I could to try to understand the whole composition better but also to overhear what people said about it. The painting is a portrait of a young girl, based on Picasso’s beautiful mistress at the time, who is looking at her reflection in a mirror. It uses a kind of complex, neo-cubist style, but most of it is quite representational. You can clearly make out the girl’s face, with her lovely oval eyes, red lips, and softly slanting nose, and you can discern the reflected face as well, much darker, drawn with dark purples and a coarseness that is absent in the girl herself. The reds that are part of the girl standing before the mirror are strong primary reds, but the reds in the reflection are browner, much less radiant, and just a bit menacing. There is one slash of reddish orange in the reflection that is like a scar across her face. As I gazed at this work, one of the things that occurred to me is that Picasso has always been rated a lesser colorist than his rival Matisse, and, I guess, for the most part he was. But this painting is so arresting in its use of color; the purples and lavenders and striking shades of green and blue are all put to extraordinary use.

The rest of the portrait shows a girl who is dressed in some kind of striped green dress which sets off her prominent and rounded breasts. She appears to be quite pregnant, though in the reflection, her bulging stomach seems shrunken and elongated. The wallpaper-like background of the painting is made up of colored diamonds that in my humble opinion undermine slightly the overall design. The girl is reaching out to her reflection in an intriguing way, and her extended arm seems to be reflected back onto her and somehow continuous with her actual arm as well.

There is much more to be said about this work, including all its Freudian and mythological implications, but I don’t know how to go into any of that. As for the people who looked at the painting, quite a few lingered for a minute or two. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand what the German couple observed or follow what the Italian twosome shared so animatedly with each other. However, among the comments I could understand included a father explaining to his wife and two sons:

“Do you see how he shows us both profiles simultaneously? That’s very characteristic of Picasso.” His wife responds: “Is she pregnant?” He says: “I think so, but it may be a pregnancy in Picasso’s own mind.” One of the sons says: “Well, that’s really helpful.” Then they wander away.

I also watched two women walk up to the painting to see the wall label then step back to take it all in better. One says: “Is she wearing a swimming suit?” The other doesn’t respond to this, but comments: “Do you see how everything is skewed? It’s all part of the crazy, mixed-up world of Picasso.” The first asks: “Did he go mad eventually?” The second answers: “I think so.”

Finally, I observed another couple as they approached the painting and the woman stopped short, “Look at this one!” They check out the wall label and say the title aloud. The man doesn’t say anything, but tilts his head to get a better look at it. As they move onto another section of the gallery, the woman smiles broadly and exclaims: “I like the big belly!”

1 comment:

  1. "How did they ever get away with inflicting that piece of junk on the American public in 1931?"
    A wonderful comment that could as well apply, in the eyes of many, to the painting as well as the film. There is no one answer, of course, and just as many might reject the premise of the question that the work of art in question is 'junk'. So much of art is context...the personal context of the artist, the historical context of the work and that state of art at the time, the personal context of the viewer.
    Frankly, I'd love to go mad like Picasso.