Edwin Dickinson: Painter of Constant Sorrow

Review of Dreams and Realities

By: - Aug 31, 2007

Edwin Dickinson: Painter of Constant Sorrow - Image 1 Edwin Dickinson: Painter of Constant Sorrow

  "In the first place, he is a serious painter. We all say we like serious painting--but do we?"-- Henry McBride, on Edwin Dickinson, The New York Sun, April 5,1941

 Learning to look involves a special kind of disinterestedness that can lead from objectivity to empathy, and ultimately, in an artist of strong sensibility, to a great projection of self. Painters naturally live by seeing; painting is a way of knowing what one feels, what really matters. Edwin Dickinson was the only  American painter of his generation to develop a modern poetic expression by extending the plein air  sketch until he could infuse the depiction of outer reality  with an inner vision.  In everything he did, perception was central to Dickinson's intelligence and sensibility.

 The traveling retrospective, Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities, is currently at the National Academy of Design in New York, the third stop on a five city tour. Douglas Dreishpoon, the show's curator, is to be applauded for producing both the exhibition and the first substantial monograph to explore the various aspects of Dickinson's life and work. In addition to his fine essay covering the life and career, there is an interpretive essay by Francis V. O'Conner on the symbolical paintings and self-portraits. Both lead writers are indebted to the 1985 dissertation by gallerist, John P. Driscoll,  on the major symbolical paintings. There are a number of appreciations by artists and critics, Helen Dickinson Baldwin, the artist's daughter, contributed an essential chronology and an extensive bibliography. Despite the uneven quality of the color reproductions, and a selection mixed with less than the best work, the book will be essential reading.
  Born into an old New England family in 1891, Edwin Dickinson was descended from clergymen; his father was the Reverend Edwin Henry Dickinson and his illustrious uncle, Charles Evans Hughes, was Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. Dickinson considered following his father into the clergy, but also attempted to enter the Naval Academy and become an officer. Dickinson saw himself as a sailor, and eventually spent  two years, during World War I,  in the Coast Guard.  However, Dickinson's life was not one of a privileged career, rather it was bohemian, eccentric, and poor, spent in the pursuit of art. After studying painting with Charles W. Hawthorne in Provincetown, Mass., he stayed on as a resident from 1913 to 1944. At thirtyseven, he married a painter, Francis Foley, and raised two children.  During the period of his greatest fame and late success, he would move between New York and Wellfleet--where he died in 1976 from Alzheimer's disease.

 The chief revelation of the leading essays is how several gothic events affected Dickinson and his work. Between the ages of four and twelve, Edwin was a constant witness to his mother's protracted death from tuberculosis. After her death, the family was broken up. By 1913, he was living in New York on Washington Square with his brother Burgess, a talented musician, nicknamed "Beethoven" by his  family and friends.  Burgess had awakened Edwin to aesthetic experience. Depressive and  alcoholic, Burgess jumped to his death. It was Edwin who discovered the body. "Burgess was the chief influence in my entire life,"  he told the interviewer  Carol Gruber. The following year, 1914,  Edwin's father remarried a woman twenty one years his junior. According to O'Conner this stoked the coals of the "family romance", creating in Edwin a resentment toward the new wife and an oedipal conflict with the father. On November 1, 1918, another tragedy occurred when a close friend, Herbert Groesbeck was killed at Verdun. Given this pattern of events, I find it odd that both Dreishpoon and O'Conner do not mention the murder of Edwin's oldest brother Howard in 1935.

 His formative and lifelong pictorial influences were principally his teacher Hawthorne and the contemporary taste for Manet and Whistler. Dickinson was taught the  plein air  tradition which featured a direct response to nature through the painted sketch, also known as a premier coup . This process involves the construction of an image by the juxtaposition of spots of color that interpret the appearance of light  and color describing forms in space. A premier coup involves a few hours of highly focused physical and mental activity where intuition spurs a spontaneous deployment of tone and touch. Working freely within a clearly defined format is a bit like jazz improvisation and it allows a painter to discover his or her sensibility without becoming self-conscious about it. Along the way, given the nature of his ambitions to produce complex subject pictures, Dickinson's profound dependence on this process was also to prove the measure of his limitations, as he himself acknowledged.

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 The exhibition itself was conceived and installed along a pre-modern conception of segregating figurative genres:  large figure compositions, the premier coups, small symbolic works developed out of premier coups, self-portraits, and  drawings. Given the biographical focus of the catalogue, it's a shame that the exhibition wasn't similarly organized; the integration of Dickinson's various formats and media would have demonstrated the essential unity of his vision and its diaristic aspect. Instead the iconological focus of O'Conner's essay sets the large figure compositions at the show's center , and Dreishpoon's installation  has followed his lead. Unfortunately, this is not a room of masterpieces. The earliest pictures are a pale pastiche of the mannerisms of Hawthorne and others, but the room contains successes too.

 The Cello Player  (1924-26) is Dickinson's breakthrough and his first masterpiece. The mannerisms are gone. We look down over an old man playing a cello surrounded by a multitude of symbolically specific objects that sometimes shift position and re-appear elsewhere in the indigo gray space. O'Conner suggests that the old man represents Dickinson's father in love with his second wife Luty, rudely symbolized by the cello, and following Driscoll's analysis, surrounded by the wide range of the artist's pre-occupations, perhaps interests also shared by the father.

 Too little is given to us about the tight-lipped Yankee Reverend and his relation to Edwin; despite a conventional distance there seems to have been a richer and  more complex relationship suggested in Dickinson's reminiscences and in his diaries. Dickinson's ethics and empathy for others are evidence of a spiritual idealism rarely encountered-- strongly present in the paintings--and demonstrated, equally in what he had to say, as in what others had to say about him. His character has a distinctly Emersonian ring: he was anti-materialist and anti-careerist; his ambition was always for his work and the development of his individuality without egotism. Certainly the painting is about Dickinson's father but does it really convey an oedipal resentment? I'm more persuaded by Driscoll's argument that the implied theme of continuance between Mozart and Beethoven, symbolized by sheet music, represents Dickinson's commitment to a continuing remembrance of his brother Burgess through his work.

  Yet all this decoding of forms makes for a mean oedipal or sibling rebus; the use of a biographical decoding of forms as a means to understanding works of art is a bit like opening an oyster and mistaking a pebble for a pearl. Such analysis closes down the painting's poetic richness and misses the picture's originality and achievement. What is really astonishing here is Dickinson's command of an emotionally charged and complex  shifting space, which has no painted precedent. Or does it? Certainly one is inclined to think of Thomas Eakins' stilted realist portrait  Mrs. William D. Trishmuth  (1900) surrounded by a variety of ancient musical instruments strewn over the floor. Still  such a comparison shows more difference than similarity. Eakins' painting is a purely materialist vision of things, even the subject herself seems deprived of anything beyond physical existence. By contrast, The Cello Player  is a revelation of a soul's mood; the old man does not seem to be playing the cello but appears collapsed about it, lost in the memory of all that we see. To me, this is more a sympathetic elegy than oedipal remonstrance.

 One clue as to how Dickinson arrived at such a painting can be found in connection to the earlier failed tableaux, Interior  (1916). As O'Conner indicates, the title refers to an 1894 one-act play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the symbolist writer. The play turns on a death in the family, an experience Dickinson certainly knew first hand. Yet beyond the situation, Maeterlinck represents an anti-realist impulse where the theatrical emphasis shifts from action in the real world to intimations of unutterable feelings.

 Dickinson was well read and seems to have arrived at a symbolist sensibility  through literary sources instead of pictorial ones. During the teens and twenties, Provincetown was a tiny artist's colony. Among the writers Dickinson came to know were John Dos Passos and Eugene O'Neill; certainly they talked to each other about their respective endeavors to produce an emotionally charged art. Just as O'Neill found an unconventional way to reveal the thoughts of his characters in Strange Interlude, Dickinson explored the conventions of naturalism and found a way to project the viewer into his head and eyes.

  Another clue, remarked upon by Dreishspoon, immediately emerged for me when I first stood before The Cello Player , An Anniversary  (1920-21), The Fossil Hunters  (1926-28), Woodland Scene  (1929-35), Composition with Still Life  (1933-37) and Stranded Brig  (1934). According to his diaries, Dickinson was an avid movie fan during the silent film era; he went to the movies several times a week. In these and other works, Dickinson made the radical gesture of adapting the hallucinatory aspects of the language of silent films into his perceptual practice; he saw how the cinema could renew the visionary aspects of a baroque realism.

 Few people today have had the privilege to see a silver nitrate film, as I did some years ago. It has a hypnogogic effect that can transform the most banal movie into a marvelous and phantasmic experience. Film and television have become so ubiquitous in our daily communications, that the shock and magic of pictures moving  is lost on us. Certainly a limited gray palette first appears in Dickinson's work as part of an admiration for Whistler, but by 1916 it also takes on an unnatural silvery remoteness that embodies the essence of loss, where even the closest things--a boy posing in the studio-- are experienced as distant, elusive. This use of gray as "symbolic color", throws the world into a kind of limbo where everything becomes rathe-like, a built in vanitas of sensual experience, found on the silver screen for one who knew how to look. The color tinting of early films also clue us to the odd colored (pink-violet-indigo-blue) grays of many of Dickinson's works of the twenties and early thirties.

 And this isn't all. The featureless faces of the early paintings may initially grow out of Hawthorne's admonition to paint in large color-tone contrasts, but here they become a  photographic blur that  evokes the vagueness of memory. Closely aligned to this idea is Dickinson's use of steeply angled points of view; dissolving forms into shadow or light; the break with a coherent overall space in favor of fragments, even to the extent of wrenching the structure of the human body. These "spots" as Dickinson called them, have a fairly direct correlation to cinematic montage. Such film techniques could be seen as early as 1916 in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance and in many films of the twenties.

 Of the filmmakers of that period, the French avant-garde director and theorist, Jean Epstein, seems to me to be the closest to Dickinson's expressive pursuits and is keenly alert to the originality of the new medium. Given Dickinson's love of Edgar Allen Poe, it is possible that he may have seen Epstein's acclaimed version of Poe's La Chute de la Maison d'Usher  (1928), which was popular among American cinema societies.  Epstein's films developed the concept of flou, or blur, the idea that film sees differently from the eye, creating "an idea without awareness, a latent, secret but marvelous idea....The cinema is supernatural....All volumes are displaced and reach flashpoint....I am looking."
     Whether he did or not matters less than suggesting the kind of cinematic experience that  must have quickened his studio experiments. Look at Dickinson's affecting Self Portrait from 1941.  He appears a disembodied chimera, his mouth open; his face yields up a mournful expression, not still, but rather, as if, in slow motion, speaking. The stove pipe locates him in his studio, while the house with a dormer window echoes both  his sojourn in France on the eve of World War Two, and the tubercular-cure cottages at Saranac lake where he stayed with his mother.

  If a cinematic reference never warranted a mention by Dickinson's contemporaries, it may have been due to the prejudices of earlier writers who believed that it was cheating for an artist to use the fruits of photography as a source of any kind; blocking it out of their minds when thinking of an admired artist like Dickinson.  In spite of that, Dickinson openly admitted to Carol Gruber that he used photographs when taking on portrait commissions and a number of drawings are known to be done from postcards and the like.

 The greatest painting of the symbolical pictures was the largest and the last, the oddly titled Composition with Still Life  (1933-37).  The subject is of a shipwreck and death by drowning. The picture's symbols seem to oscillate between private grief  and a mythic scene; Dickinson wanted a painting of elegy and transcendence. It has the scale of a projected film and the presence of a great altarpiece. I am reminded of Dickinson's statement to Elaine de Kooning, "When I saw the Burial of Count Orgaz, I knew where my aspirations lay." In this work, cinematic montage is substituted for pictorial conventions which convey emotion.  At first, the painting seems to depict a view down into a sunken boat, a watery grave for two female figures: but the objects start to rush upwards toward us from the watery depths, expanding to an hallucinatory scale in a cinematic-mental space. Certainly one can intuit private meanings beneath what is shown, grasping at effects built by both readable Christian symbols (i.e., the fragment of mirror-- suggesting the vanity of corporeal life, the Dantesque echo of the "wood of suicides"-suggesting Burgess), and hermetic forms (i.e., the blue rose, the two vases and two figures) keeping their secrets. Nearest to us is a  jack spewing forth water, creating a murmuring ripple in which  the vases are mirrored-- a metaphoric image signifying, perhaps, the artist himself. Through everything there is a listing roll and a vertiginous sense of movement.

 In another sea picture, completed in 1943, the compelling Stranded Brig grew out of his long interest in the arctic explorations of adventurers like Shacklton and Byrd. Here, everything seems to buckle and grind in a taut compressed space that functions like an El Greco, without using any of his mannerisms. The painting moves beyond the facts of history and is deeply engaged with the terrifying sublime.

 From these pictures it is clear that Dickinson began to see himself as a sea and landscape painter. As a lifelong sailor, Dickinson loved the ocean, its gray vastness, its damp airs and dark tempests; he often walked the beaches and dunes for pleasure. In one of the best landscapes, Frazier's Path to the Beach  (1940), shown in a concurrent show at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, the scene is not static but an imaginatively dynamic expression of space. We see through the blur of modulated forms, of sand dunes and grass, suggesting both the rush of space while walking, and the curvature of vision. Looking is made a heightened act of consciousness; drawn into the picture, in this way, we partake of a physical empathy that creates intimacy. The experience of landscape and in-scape are one. Painted with the broad use of a palette knife and his little finger, signed with the wrong end of the brush, many of Dickinson's premier coups  were painted at least a decade before the mature works of Willem de Kooning. And it is mostly these paintings that established his reputation among the, yet to be, members of the New York School during the nineteen forties.

 Yet Dickinson is an imperfect perfectionist. Too often he fawns over an elegant smear that fails to be form, light or space. In some well known pictures, tones placed back in space collapse into the surface, or create holes where form should be; elsewhere hard edges of strong color disrupt atmospheric continuity. Sometimes the painted performance simply fails to overcome the banality of various motifs. Such failures are part of the risk of following the provisory methods of Whistler and Manet; without them, we wouldn't have the successes. More consistently satisfying are Dickinson's mature drawings; they yield, in the subtlety of graphite grays, an illumination at once accurate and oneiric. Seen together his premier coups and drawings may be read like his journals-- a long tone poem to being.

 Begun on January 1, 1943, during the height of World War Two and abandoned in 1953, after a puncture repair left it varnished, Ruin at Daphne is Dickinson's most famous and admired painting. Drawn over a red-orange ground, a disjunctive landscape of Roman architectural forms were developed around a Syrian temple; the picture itself is a palimpsest of a pictorially  imagined history. We are confronted by a paradoxical space seen from multiple points of view, its central section, painted in green-violet grays, floats against the nebulous luster of a red-orange ground like a contemporary picture by Roberto Matta. The barren labyrinth of Piranesian geometry expresses a terribilit√ɬ† of spiritual anxiety, barely relieved by the spectral depiction of a cluster of doves in flight.

  Initially inspired by a visit to the Roman ruins at Arles, the painting began as a meditation on a long lost "Pax Romana". Dickinson said,
"I could see New the light of Roman times--how the Romans must have looked at Rome, or how I look at New York, it seeming just like Rome... when Rome was pure in the Republic."

 Too much discussed as an eleven-year formal exercise in perspective and antiquarian interest, Ruin at Daphne ought to be seen as a complex monument to what was at risk during the Second World War. Still beneath this is a subtext discovered as one contemplates the confusion of architectural forms. The scene is disturbing, like viewing an ashen corpse. Here again, Dickinson expressed his continuing sense of longing, abandonment and unfading agape--his desire to paint a tribute to Burgess, whose initials where kept at the top center of the painting until it was sold to the Metropolitan Museum. When he removed them, he told his wife that  "it was not good enough for Burgess".

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 Elaine de Kooning wrote her seminal article on Dickinson's Ruin at Daphne for Art News in 1949. Willem de Kooning's response to Dickinson's unfinished masterpiece may be seen in Gansevoort Street  (1949). Beyond similar proportions, a red-orange field, and architectural forms, these works share surprising variations on late cubist structure, kept in a constant state of flux, refashioned by the free play of imagination. Viewed this way, Ruin at Daphne could be seen as an alternate model to de Kooning's figuration. This is what caused so much excitement among painters in 1953, when Dickinson's work was featured in Dorothy Miller's Fifteen Americans at the Museum of Modern  Art. Dickinson went on to have two successful major retrospectives in the sixties and was the featured American artist at the XXXIV Venice Biennial, in 1968.  

 As an unacademic realist, Dickinson was sui generis.  Yet there are parallels between his subject pictures and those of Felice Casorati and Fausto Pirandello. To a later generation, he was an inspiration to James McGarrell, Lennart Anderson, Ron Kitaj, James Rosenquist, and Chuck Close. Related uses of blur, or flou , have been used by Gerhard Richter and by Francis Bacon, whose Man with Dog  of 1953, was admired by Dickinson.

 Yet today, Edwin Dickinson stands in the long shadow of Edward Hopper's fame. If Edwin Dickinson is not as widely appreciated as Hopper, it is partly due to the greater severity of his nature; as Henry McBride wrote, "He is an ascetic." In general, Dickinson's work addresses the viewer in sotto voce with a silvery sfumato. Often Dickinson's work presents us with the starkest of motifs, images of loss and ruin in a transcendentalist vision. Everything depicted by Dickinson is experienced as if glimpsed through tremulous emotions; we are invited into a visceral intimacy.

 Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities, opened at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New  York, April 27-July 14, 2002; The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Penn,  Sept.14-Dec. 1, 2002; The National Academy of Design, New York, Jan.31- Apr. 13, 2003;  Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, May 9-July 20, 2003; Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and  Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Aug. 29- Nov. 9, 2003.
 Edwin Dickinson, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, 2002.
 Edwin Dickinson: Selected Works, ACA Galleries, New York, Nov. 23-Jan. 4, 2003.
 Edwin Dickinson, Babcock Galleries,  New York, Jan. 14-Mar. 28, 2003.