Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem

by Constance Schwartz



A sensuous skin of paint that creates an almost physical sensation, is one of the characteristics of the representational painting by Walt Kuhn. Akin to the temperamental affinity for circus performers displayed by Picasso, Kuhn's art shows a pathos for the gaudy glamour of the circus and burlesque in his paintings of showgirls and sad-looking clowns. (Pages_). Kuhn shows his protagonists in bold, simplified volume and daring color that matches the instinctive physical power of his subjects. He creates a drama in light and shadow, with a penetrating mood of silence and waiting.

From the canvas of life, all these artists paint a fight for survival against the deep despair of human existence. In this spirit, the painting, The Wedding (page_) by Joseph Hirsch radiates deep compassion. The figures form an almost pageant-like image; the innocent, poor and aged protagonists express a quality of mystical spontaneity and life. The figures that look stiff and stylized seem to be God's marionettes coming to life. These are the persons who may work in factories, bars, streets and homes. A cellar appears to be the scenario for the wedding of the ancient-looking couple. The entertainment, musicians in a New Orleans style band who usually plays for funerals, are caught in that supreme moment of gesture that calls attention to the narrative. Despite the joyful occasion, this large wall-size opus is moving and sad, one that documents the distress of the subjects, each imprisoned in his own introspective agony, and shows the human struggle to achieve human dignity.

The realities of unemployment and the dejection of having to wait on line to view an opening position, with varying ethnic backgrounds and ages united in their feeling of melancholia and despair which pervades scenes dramatically, the radical discourse on the streets, the seeming prevailing sadness of clowns and other personas on stage, the brutality within parades and pageantry, the gangsters, the barflies and innocents, the attacks in back alleys, the haves versus the have-nots, are all shown in this exhibit in a world that is dangerous and hostile.

These artists that have proclaimed their viewpoint, for the most part, hold no brief for the 'Ivory Tower' and 'art feeding on art' theories. Despite the varied themes, all have a common view: they paint the "squirm of life" and that part of existence that is not glorifying. The social origins of such forms of modern art do not in themselves permit viewers to evaluate this art; they simply throw light upon some aspects of humanity and enable one to see more clearly that the ideas of modern artists, far from describing eternal and basic conditions of art, are the result of a depressive period not so far gone. The artist thus attempts to change things. At the very least, his art, zestful and unsettling, can focus on society and, thus, for himself, can be an effective weapon.


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