Andrée Ruellan, Ever Young

by Andrew Ladis



Contemporary with Crap Game, the beautifully tender drawing of an African American youth, Julius (1936), conveys the gentle sadness and resignation that is the polar accompaniment to the painting's outward subject. It possesses a directness and honesty that is lost in the case of other works, such as Ruellan's later mural, Spring in Georgia (1942), for the post office in Lawrenceville, Georgia, but, of course, the latter was created in the context of world war and as a public image meant to address the local community for which it was made. Spring in Georgia celebrates the generative power of nature as manifest in all of nature's realm through the creative duality of male and female. The two halves of the composition converge at center: She, the woman who is also a mother, approaches from the left, and he, the man who is also a father, from the right, and the elemental simplicity of the scheme is underscored by the imagery of light and dark, for she faces the sun, while his face is cast in shadow. She is associated with the house and he with the field, she with the world within and he with that beyond. A verdant garden with daffodils in bloom, shrubbery in flower, and evergreens cloak the domestic world of the house in the foliage of fertility and that fact is set beside the red clay, tilled fields, and peach trees that are his domain. Although the frieze of figures and paired animals against a landscape has the character of a classical relief, the persuasiveness of each part is derived from on-the-spot sketches that were reintegrated in the painter's studio into the perfect order of the finished image, so that the whole has the patchwork quality of abiding memories and not the spontaneity and vitality of an actual scene: the universality of a self-made, latter-day Eden with a youthful Adam and Eve who labor for the fruit of a giving land.

Later still, after the war, Ruellan turned to the imagery of the carnival. Inspired by a visit to New Orleans in 1948 and by the example of her friend and colleague Yasuo Kuniyoshi as well as by Surrealism, Ruellan's outlook darkened, reflecting her disillusionment and deepening pessimism in a world unaccountably different from that before the war: a place of wrested innocence and unresolved identities. The nightmarish quality of such images as Masques (1951), in which children -- or figures disguised as children -- engage in somehow too-knowing revelry, leaves one unsettled, discomfited, indeed, even alienated from a subject whose actual meaning is the dark opposite of what its surface pretends. Equally disturbing are Pink Masks (1948) and Louisiana Landscape (1949), which move toward greater ambiguity and abstraction. By the 1960s, Ruellan demonstrated her sympathy with the art of the Abstract Expressionists, but, in creating pictures inspired by her experience of the marshlands of Florida, she never entirely gave up representation, and her art, however subjective, nevertheless brightened and grew freer in the context of a new, more confident decade. Never having abandoned nature, Andrée Ruellan returned, in the end as in the beginning, to her enduring source of inspiration: the visible world, as perceived by sensing eyes and recollected in the matrix of a resourceful memory, a world whose incidents and emotions she renders with a skilled hand that is the instrument of genius, a gift that remains ever young in her art.


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