George Biddle, Raphael Soyer, and the Genius with a Thousand Faces

by Andrew Ladis

 



 

As detached from each other as mind and matter or retina and hand, the painter and his muse are seated in corresponding positions to either side of the central axis, which formal marker suggests a creative divide that is embodied by the two halves of the composition. Maker and model constitute the initial ingredients of creativity and the twin extremes of subjective and objective truth, for he looks inwardly in self-absorption, while she stares directly at the viewer. As carefully positioned as the stars in a constellation, images, tools, objects, and surfaces revolve around the painter and his model like the attributes of craft. Taken together, these depicted forms suggest a creative course, a way of making; at the same time, they fashion a composite view of the painter's psychic space and his inner motives. The varying degrees of finish of these images within the image, the unpredictable jumps in scale between one represented figure and the next, the space-confusing juxtapositions of one species of image to another, the ambiguous, collage-like treatment of space, and the "empty" center define the different levels of reality that characterize the various parts of the whole, and in this way, Biddle conjures a kind of dream space that is at once a projection of the painter's mind as well as a record of his hand.

For Biddle, Soyer is Everyman or, to be more precise, Every Artist; thus, in a deeper sense, this poignant Homage may also be understood as a wry self-portrait of its maker. Taking up the familiar subject of the artist in his studio, Biddle acknowledges his indebtedness to a past that shaped his own identity as a painter: he pays homage to Degas (and their common friendship with Cassatt) through the device of the chair that seems precariously unsupported, but he also acknowledges the inspiration of Cubism through the formal and psychological fragmentation of the whole into overlapping entities that inhabit a strangely comprehensible, yet elastic, setting. In the end, Biddle's Homage to Raphael Soyer is not only a manifesto on behalf of tradition and a brilliant demonstration of the subtlety and nuance perhaps possible only through the figure, but it is also a sensitive, melancholy tribute to the persistence of a quiet painter, whose equally quiet works embodied the inspiration of enduring ideals, ideals that also guided Biddle, who sees himself half-mirrored in the untidy, unpretentious person of their guardian genius. At this point, Biddle and the Abstract Expressionists seem not so far apart, for, like the latter, Biddle recognizes the artist's touch as a manifestation of the artist's personality: Soyer is a mirror image of Biddle, and both are reflections of an abiding archetype. The idea of an outward modesty that belies an inner beauty, the notion of a creator whose humble appearance clothes his exalted talent, in short, the figure of the ugly genius is a topos, articulated in the literature of the Greeks and perpetuated by the Renaissance. The quintessential example, promoted by Boccaccio and sanctified by Vasari, is Giotto, whose vision helped guide western art into the modern era. A portrayal of the eternal artist, Biddle's Homage to Raphael Soyer is touched by a sense of awe before the wonder of creation. That beauty should spring from so unlikely a source as a Giotto or a Soyer is a mystery, and so, the artist's studio is a sacred precinct, art itself a miracle, and its thousand-faced maker somehow divine.

 

About the Author

Andrew Ladis is Professor of Art History in the Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia.

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was published, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on May 18, 2005 with the permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. Dr. Ladis's essay, with modifications, is included in a 339 page illustrated catalogue titled Coming Home: American Paintings, 1930-1950, from the Schoen Collection, published in 2003 by the Georgia Museum of Art to accompany the exhibition of the same name being held at the Museum August 27 through November 27, 2005. ISBN 0-915977-50-8. (right; front cover of Coming Home: American Paintings, 1930-1950, from the Schoen Collection. Photo courtesy Georgia Museum of Art)

If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Bonnie Ramsey and Ms. Rebecca Yates of the Georgia Museum of Art for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

 

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