From the EBSQ Archives: Gordon Parks- Appreciation of an artist’s life work by Diane Barton

GordonParkImage002“The guy who takes a chance, who walks the fine line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.”
– Gordon Parks

‘Do you know who Gordon Parks is?’ If you answered ‘No’ I was with you 5-6 years ago. While researching something online one night, I came across an area college photography contest. It mentioned the man the contest was named after, Gordon Parks. I sought to learn more the artist worthy of a college art competition.

Gordon Parks at Life Magazine

If you answered ‘Yes’ you may relate to me now six years later. Here I am with a shelf full of books on and by him, a signed photo of him for inspiration on my office wall, and he is discussed so often in my college courses on photography, that my students often affectionately refer to him as “Gordon baby”.

GordonParkImage004The youngest of fifteen children, Parks was born in 1912 and raised in Fort Scott, Kansas.   Fort Scott is approximately 50 miles from where I sit typing this article. Our great state is known for many historical events, including Brown vs. the Board of Education, a court decision that theoretically ended segregation in schools, the famed Buffalo soldiers black Calvary, abolitionist John Brown, and Nicodemus, the only continuously surviving all-black community west of the Mississippi.   Yet it took me until the age of thirty-five to learn about this man, and what I learned impressed me beyond the words I can put together.

American Gothic by Gordan Parks

“American Gothic”

From meager beginnings great things came to be. Parks repeatedly credits his parents as being his heroes, for the “Compassion and generosity”, as they managed to raise such a large family in a small two-bedroom house. They helped to prepare him for a rough road that life had dealt him. Racism was a normal part of life in Kansas during his childhood, and he commented he considered himself “lucky to be alive especially when I remember that four of my close friends died of senseless brutality before they were twenty-one.”

At the age of fifteen, his mother, a lifelong influence on him, passed away. As the youngest, his older siblings had long moved on and started their own lives. The young man went to live with an older sister in Minnesota, once there he and his brother-in-law had a disagreement. Gordon was forced out of the home and onto the thirty below zero streets. He managed to survive by working menial jobs, including a piano player in a brothel.

Eventually he fell in love and married. But he knew he would never be able to support himself and his growing family on his low wages. Searching for another way to make a living that would allow him to express himself, he knew he wanted more from life. He had witnessed others around him choose a life of violence and inevitably saw them fall victim of the life they chosen.

GordonParkImage012While working as a waiter on a train, he frequently found himself in Chicago, on layovers.   On one such stop he viewed pictures of the bombing of the ‘Panay’, a U.S. Navy gunboat. Eventually he also saw images created by the Farm Security Administration photographers, such as Dorthea Lange, Roy Stryker, Walker Evans and others. They all showed him that he could express himself and still show what was happening around him.   So at the age of twenty five he was inspired to buy a used camera for $7.50, and he to seriously pursue photography.

Ultimately he landed a job at Life magazine as a photographer and reporter from 1948-1968. But this was only a small portion of what this man has achieved. Below is a summery of a few of the things he has done over the course of the last ninety-one years.
The next day he shot a roll of film on the camera and sent the photos off to be processed. The people of Eastman Kodak saw his images and h=gave him encouraging words that lead to them giving him a small show in a storefront window in Minneapolis.
In time his photography won him a fellowship from Julius Rosenwald Foundation. This enabled him to begin working closely with the Farm Services Administration (FSA) and the noted photographer Roy Stryker.


In 1942 Parks moves his family to Washington D.C. in order to work for the FSA.   On his first day in Washington, Stryker told him to get a meal, see a movie and to buy a new suit.   But when Parks tried to do as he was told, he was shown the back door, refused service, and the stores mysteriously did not have his size, no matter what size he asked for. When Stryker asked how things went Parks commented that, “Mississippi couldn’t have been worse.” Stryker explained to him that his job was now to show through his photographs the way the country really was. It was not enough for him to simply take a photograph and label it “bigot”.  He would have to do more to truly show what was happening.

It did not take Parks long to begin a journey of a lifetime. His first professional photo was “American Gothic”. A charwoman happened to be mopping the floor of the FSA building when everyone else had left for the day, and Parks asked her to pose for his camera. Two days later he showed the piece to Stryker. He simply shook his head as he viewed the image. “Well your catching on, but that picture could get us all fired.”

Gordon Parks on the set of “Shaft”

Growing up in Kansas, when he did, he was not encouraged to go to college. Nevertheless he has gone on to be awarded over fifty honorary doctorate degrees from various universities. And despite the racism that was present in the industry, he was hired as a fashion photographer for Vogue Magazine, and became cofounder of Essence magazine. At the age of thirty-five he published his first book, “Flash Photography”, the start of numerous others, including ‘The Learning Tree’ in 1963. It is required reading for many school districts across the nation, and often included among the ‘most frequently challenged books list’. The latter he made into a feature film, as the first African American film director for a major studio (Warner Brothers). The filming required Parks to return back to Fort Scott Kansas to complete the project.

But the creation that most people recognize with his name is the movie “Shaft” in 1971. Making him what many consider as one of the contributions to the blaxploitation genre. Donald Faulkner, director of the Writers Institute once commented, “Gordon Parks was like the Jackie Robinson of film. His history as a filmmaker is part of American history. He broke ground for a lot of people, Spike Lee, John Singleton, who are working successfully now.”


His achievements are even more remarkable, when you consider that a man who never graduated High School achieved these things. To help rectify the situation, last July a delegation from his hometown, including a former mayor, came to New York and presented him with a high school diploma from the Fort Scott high school. Seventy-seven years after a teacher named Miss McClintock, told Parks and other black students within the school, “Don’t waste your parents’ money on college. You’ll wind up as porters and maids.” Parks is said to credit her with “…pushing me to find her wrong”.

GordonParkImage030This past February 2003, Parks publisher released the book, “The Sun Stalker,” a novel based on the life of J.W. Turner. It was his eighteenth book, including three full-length memoirs. Life magazine still calls upon him to write essays from time to time. Today at the age of ninety-one, when his health permits, Gordon Parks continues to do speaking engagements, and to personally accept awards.

If you wish to see his work in person, you can currently view a portion until February 29th, 2004 where a portion of his work is included in the International Center of Photography’s, NY, NY exhibition “Only Skin Deep; Changing Visions of the American Self”.

As an instructor, I encourage my students to seek out a mentor. It is expected that looking to others will find them guidance, ideas and hopefully prevent them from having to ‘reinvent the wheel’. It is also hoped that they will choose someone that will show them anything is possible. For me, one such person has been Gordon Parks. Although he began life as a poverty stricken youth on the Kansas Prairie, he seems to finally be gaining the recognition he has long deserved, as both a creative genius and an inspiration for many generations to come.

Color Images created by Gordon Parks

Fort Scott Community College Photography Competition
Library of Congress
Photographer: Gordon Parks (U.S. Government Charwoman)
PBS NewsHour transcript, January 6, 1998 Half Past Autumn
Flash site on Half Past Autumn
Gordon Parks Page E!Online
Biographical information Gale – Free Resources
Kodak Site on Gordon Parks
Ford Motor Company funding
Kansas State Historical Society

Gordon Parks’ Visions  (1986)
Half Slave/Half Free – Pt. 1  (1984)
Solomon Northup’s Odyssey  (1984)
Half Slave, Half Free  (1984)
Leadbelly  (1975)
The Super Cops  (1974)
Shaft’s Big Score  (1972)
Shaft  (1971)
The Learning Tree  (1969)
The American Documents – V. 9 A Moment in Time

Selection of Books
Arias in Silence / Little, Brown, c1994
A Choice of Weapons / Berkley Pub. Co., 1967, c1966.
Born Black. /   J.B. Lippincott, c1971.
Flavio / Norton, c1978.
Glimpses Toward Infinity / Little, Brown, c1996.
Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera : whispers of intimate things / Viking Press, [1971]
Half Past Autumn : a retrospective / Bulfinch Press, 1997.
In Love. / Lippincott, c1971.
The Learning Tree / Fawcett,   c1963.
To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir : / Norton, c1979.
Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera / Viking Press, c1968.
Shannon / Little, Brown, c1981.
The Sun Stalker : a novel based on the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner / Ruder Finn Press, 2002.
Voices in the Mirror : an autobiography / Doubleday, c1990.


From the EBSQ Archives: Forgetting the Self: Nathan Oliveira by John Seed

“To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.” – Thirteenth Century Zen Master Dogen in a passage from his Genjo-koan

Standing Man with Hands in Belt

Nathan Oliveira, Standing Man with Hands in Belt, 1960
Oil on canvas, 82 x 62 in
Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 

Spring Nude

Nathan Oliveira, Spring Nude, 1962
Oil on canvas, 96 x 76 in
Collection of the Oakland Museum 

The cover of the exhibition catalog Nathan Oliveira by Peter Selz displays what California art lovers would recognize instantly as a “classic” Oliveira canvas, Standing Man With Hands in Belt (1960). Like so many of the large oils that first brought Oliveira’s work recognition it contains a single figure set in and against a field of painterly gestures, fields, drizzles and drips. Inside the catalog, a full page is reserved for the dusky Spring Nude (1962) in which a seemingly weightless female evanescence from a salmon pink ocean of glowing, calligraphic brushwork.

Paintings like these, which Oliveira executed between 1957 and 1962, when he was in his late twenties and early thirties, brought him early recognition, but also created the public perception that Oliveira was only a “figurative” artist. He was seen as a late-joiner to the Bay Area Figurative School and it is true that he attended drawing sessions with its members including David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, who became a lifelong friend. The problem with this association, and with the early fame achieved by the artist as a young man, is that his approach to the figure was fundamentally different from that of the other San Francisco Bay Area artists.

As a traveling retrospective showcasing over fifty years of his efforts — at the Orange County Museum of Art from April 5th through June of 2003 — will show, Oliveira has used the figure as the starting point for his artistic process, but not as its true subject. Something similar could be said of his animal images, his sites and fetishes of the late seventies, and of the Windhover series of recent years: they hover in they appeal to the imagination but resist easy classification.

Triumph and Glory

 Jean Dubuffet, Triumph and Glory, 1950

Oil on canvas, 51 x 38 inches.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 71.1973.
Jean Dubuffet © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.  

The constant feature of Oliveira’s creativity is that he has been trying to forget his subjects, not to paint them. It turns out that an artist famous for his figurative work has been working towards abstraction all his life. His work portrays the struggle of the artist’s self and its consciousness to move towards a connection with the universal and the eternal. It is a struggle that begins with the perception of self and others, and which ultimately moves towards abstraction and destruction of those perceptions.

Oliveira’s real subjects are human presence — and absence.

– I always have wanted to be an abstract artist, but it had to be about something very particular. – Nathan Oliveira

When Oliveira’s work gained national attention in the 1959 New Images of Man exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the world was still absorbing the horrors visited on the human body by the Holocaust in Europe and the use of nuclear weapons in Japan. In this exhibition, Oliveira’s paintings were shown alongside those of leading Europeans including Alberto Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet who were creating images of the human figure that attempted to suggest the perilous condition of human beings in what seemed a bleak and Godless future.
As Peter Selz writes in the Oliveira catalog about Dubuffet’s treatment of the female body in his paintings of the early 1950’s:

His treatment violates all sacred and dearly held concepts of mother, wife, lover, daughter and sister, as well as the principles of beauty derived from cultural signals of the erotic.

The European philosophy of Existentialism had given its permission to artists who treated the body in such as radical way, since, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre:

Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.

During the same decade when Europeans painted the body to suggest the despair of this condition, the American phenomenon Jackson Pollock one-upped the Europeans by eliminating the body from his art altogether and using dripped skeins of paint to project anxieties that were deeply personal and abstract. Just as America emerged from World War Two as the world’s leading power, New York surpassed Paris as the center of modernism and abstraction won the war of modernist styles.

Portrait of Joris de Caulerri
Portrait of Joris de Caulerri by Rembrandt

To understand how Oliveira became an artist — and to appreciate how quickly his ideas developed — it is necessary to consider the influences which shaped Oliveira as he grew up 3000 miles from New York, and even further from Europe.

As a high school student first studying painting he had been thunderstruck by a Rembrandt portrait, Jooris de Caulcerii (1632) in a San Francisco museum. Although Oliveira had grown up in a Portuguese Catholic household, Rembrandt was one of the first of a long line of Northern European, Protestant artists who would speak to him through their artwork.

Rembrandt was the first major European artist to plumb the self as artistic subject matter, and the artist’s anxiety and self-doubt were his gateway to profound realizations about personality and spiritual doubt. Rembrandt, with his Protestant anxiety, offered a way of coping, through art, with a modern world that had just begun its slow divorce from the rituals and rites of Catholicism, still tinged with helpful Pagan magic and the promise that an appeased God could protect those who renounce sin.

Oliveira must have recognized a particular aliveness in the Rembrandt portrait, the aliveness of an individual man living with the anxiety and promise of a world where Calvinist thought suggested that the face of God could be glimpsed through contemplation. Rembrandt, Oliveira realized, was a kind of master magician who could conjure up this aliveness of the self through the inherently abstract medium of paint strokes on canvas. It was as if an artist who had been dead for over 300 years had reached out through the canvas and handed Nathan the brush, saying “Why don’t you see what you can do with this?”

Although it was the representational art of Rembrandt which woke Oliveira up to the possibilities of painting, abstract art was a powerful force in the San Francisco Bay Area. When Oliveira enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts in 1947 Clyfford Still had been on the faculty for a year, and Mark Rothko was a summer instructor. The influence of abstraction was so powerful that by 1949 the San Francisco Annual was made up almost entirely of abstract art.

Max Beckmann, teaching in 1950 
Max Beckmann, teaching in 1950

At this same time, a powerful counter-current of Northern European art came to Bay Area in the form of exhibitions at the de Young Museum of Max Beckmann (1949), Oskar Kokoschka (1950), and Edvard Munch (1951). All three of these artists were Expressionists who relied on the story-telling possibilities of figurative art, and one of them, Max Beckmann, came to San Francisco in 1950 to teach a summer painting class which Oliveira enrolled in.

To study with Beckmann who disliked abstraction and called it “nail polish” was a challenging, stimulating experience for Oliveira. Some art historians have argued that the vogue of Postwar American abstraction was a kind of avoidance of historical content, and since the horrors of the holocaust and Hiroshima were honestly portrayed by photojournalism, Expressionist art seemed to have been outstripped.

Max Beckmann , Self-Portrait 
Max Beckmann , Self-Portrait

Beckmann, who spoke little English, was nonetheless a compelling teacher whose very presence was a reminder of the vitality of European painting traditions. He was a fully committed artist who had endured the humiliation of Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition, and a poignant exile from the vanished world of German Modernism.

As Oliveira later recounted:

“He seemed like a very fundamental man, whose only interest was in painting — that’s all he wanted to do. Still, I think from our encounters he communicated, indirectly, what artistic values were about.”

By the time Oliveira graduated from art school in 1951 he had already been confronted by the powerful artistic traditions that he has spent his career integrating and resolving: figuration and abstraction. His exposure to the work of Beckmann had convinced him that painting needed to tell a story, but the pull of abstraction would take his narratives into new, difficult artistic territory.

American Abstract Expressionism, or “Action Painting” as critic Harold Rosenberg called it, was a style of painting which demanded that artists improvise as they worked. It was this style of painting which had taken New York by storm in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s and it was the style that any “advanced” artist on either coast had to adopt or risk being called academic.

One master of this Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning, who Oliviera met and befriended in 1959, liked to call himself a “slipping glimpser”. Originally trained as an academic artist in Rotterdam, de Kooning became famous for his series of “Women” which were everything but academic in their painterly execution. De Kooning’s figures seems to melt into a casserole of drips, ribbon-like paint strokes, and ragged impasto. This violent use of paint impressed Oliveira, but he also understood some of the deep human and perceptual suggestions imbedded in de Kooning’s vision.

Woman V 1952-53

Willem de Kooning
Woman V 1952-53 
oil and charcoal on canvas
154.5 x 114.5 cm 
© Willem de Kooning, 1952-53/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2002 

Oliveira remembers de Kooning telling him how he had once glimpsed an attractive woman at a party. Moments later, de Kooning recounted, he looked back and found her gone. This, he told Oliveira, was something he kept in mind when painting — the visual memory of presence and absence. Oliveira’s “Sitting Man with Dog” of 1957 has a strong kinship with de Kooning. The vivid black and grey swaths of paint which crisscross this enigmatic figure seem to both give the figure its mass and simultaneously to obscure it. The image has a haunting figural presence, but the artist’s process suggest that this presence is tenuous: perhaps it is just the shadow of a man who has vanished.

Seated Man with Dog, 1957

Nathan Oliveira 
Seated Man with Dog, 1957
oil on canvas
58 3/8 x 49 1/2 inches
The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden 

Just ten years later, Oliveira would again deal with the theme of disappearance, and the clear style of his “Stage Paintings” showed the artist gravitating back towards a world that a viewer’s eyes could recognize, albeit an empty one.

In “Stage #2 with Bed” the themes of presence and absence are suggested by an open door and an empty bed. With the earnest intent of showing us that his evanescent world could be briefly focused, Oliveira manages to give us narration, but with only a few recognizable forms. Clearly, what has happened or will happen in this world is a human drama, but the painting demands imagination from the viewer and implies that the artist and his subject have “exited”, thwarting easy interpretations.

Stage #2 with Bed, 1967

Nathan Oliveira 
Stage #2 with Bed, 1967
oil on canvas
66 x 67 inches
The Anderson Collection 

To put it another way: Oliveira’s audience is part of the meditation of presence and absence. As “Stage 2 with Bed” suggests, Oliveira is aware of the audience for his art, but asks them to exit the stage door and go beyond the constraints of what they can recognize.

Oliveira’s friend Richard Diebenkorn was also eliminating figures around this same time, starting work on the “Ocean Park” series of abstractions which Oliveira would admire and borrow from. Diebenkorn had grown tired of the way that critics and viewers found Freudian and sexual connotations for the figures in his work, an annoyance that Oliveira shared. It seemed that putting a nude into any painting would be perceived as somehow erotic, and this was another connotation that Oliveira felt distracted from the deeper resonance he wished to insinuate.
The “sites” created by the artist during the 1970’s and 80’s continued to draw viewers into uncertain realms. While many of these images suggest a kind of archaeology, they appear to be made by living cultures whose inhabitants appear in separate paintings. The sites are redolent with hints of rite and ritual, and also with the suggestion of societies who built and created while remaining in concert with nature. The images thrive on suggestions of human presence, while refusing to admit details of time or place. The sites are another example of Oliveira’s tendency to avoid specificity, and let the human, the abstract, and the irrational flood into perceptual empty spaces.

“Western Site XI,” 1978

Nathan Oliveira
“Western Site XI,” 1978 
monotype, 26″ x 22″ 
Collection Saint Louis Art Museum 

Often, the absences in Oliveira’s art provide enthralling moments. In his mid-career works, he willed the figure to disappear, and found himself — and his viewers — entering into spiritual territory.

By our use of them to keep ourselves alive, other persons begin to assume the place of fetishes and totems, becoming keepers of our lives. Through this worship of the personal, personal relationships have become the place where the divine is to be found, so the new theology asserts… Human persons are the contemporary shrines and statues where personifying is lodged.
– James Hillman

Shaman V, 1977
Shaman V, 1977

Oliveira’s approach to the human figure, from the beginning of his career onwards, has been one of personification. His imaginative approach has constantly suggested that art needs to take the figure out of the mundane context of the present into the world of the eternal — the spirit world. Whether his figures are faceless and featureless, as in “Red Couple” or loaded with anthropological suggestion, as in “Shaman 5” they connect us to a world vibrant with human magic.

Always a sensual artist, Oliveira’s world demolishes literal boundaries and categories, and suggests that sensation transcends meaning. His images begin with sensual perceptions which he has taken into the eternal by demolishing their literal meanings. It is a world of immortals, always present and available to anyone with imagination.

According the Joseph Campbell, the difference between a Shaman and a Priest is that a Shaman is not connected to institutionalized religion. Oliveira, a non-practicing Catholic, uses images like “Shaman 5” to reclaim faith — and magic — from religion and restore it to individuals as a form of visionary consciousness.

The Red Couple, 2002
The Red Couple, 2002


The artist’s recent “Red Couple” suggests co-existence in world where figures are indeed personified as shrines or objects. It is as if the erasure of their human particulars is accomplished with a painterly process parallels a stripping away of differences: culture, gender and other categories are released and a new kind of relationship can be contemplated.

Human figures are not the only ones loaded with personifying magic in Oliveira’s art. Animals forms co-exist in the same equilibrium, and many of them — baboons and hawks among others — seem to be incarnations of animal deities found in earlier societies. His figures and animals all belong to a Pre-Columbian world of coexistence. It is a kind of Mayan or Egyptian world where the biblical idea of Eden and its opposites has not been introduced.

Acoma Hawk III, 1975


Nathan Oliveira
Acoma Hawk III, 1975
Two color lithograph 

The artist’s engagement with the eternal has led him into conversations with many artists, writers and works of art. He has created series that came from artistic dialogues with Goya and Rembrandt, and has built themes on poems by Poe and Hopkins. In each of these cases he has treated works by past artists as living documents, seeing art history not as a series of periods and styles, but as a continuous dialogue. In that sense, it may be misleading to call Oliveira a Modernist, as he envisions himself as an artist in the same way that the carver of an Egyptian statue of the Pharaoh 4,000 years ago was an artist.

I simply want to be a part of a continuous resonance. – Nathan Oliveira

“I had to go through a period of transition, from wings to abstract images that conveyed the idea of wings without getting all trapped up in feathers. It’s really about the imagination and the inner spirit of flight.”
– Nathan Oliveira

The Windhover IV 1991-94


Nathan Oliveira 
The Windhover IV 1991-94
oil on canvas
90 1/2 x 212 1/2 inches 

In his more recent works, Oliveira has continued to create figurative works — often the figures are animals — while also creating a cycle of large scale works which are meant to be installed as a cycle. The “Windhovers”, inspired by a Gerard Manley Hopkins Poem, are abstracted from images of wings, rainbows and skies. Compared to most Post-Modern painting, which often has a rigorous theoretical basis, the Windhovers favor the experience of the senses over the power of the intellect. In a surprising way, an artist who began his career as a Modernist has reached backwards in feeling: the Windhovers have more in common with Catholic Baroque art than they do with Picasso.



The windhovers do what Baroque art did: the use the sky as a metaphor and inspire sensation, awe and faith, qualities that Oliveira’s peers in the “New Images of Man” exhibition had abandoned.

Oliveira hopes that funds can be found to place the Windhover cycle on the Stanford University campus, where he taught for over 30 years. His idea is to create a space for contemplation, along the lines of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

After 55 years of leaving behind the “real” world and creating a new, better one in his paintings, Oliveira has found that forgetting details can be liberating. Dismissive of art world fashions, and of intellectual currents, he has had the luxury of losing himself in his work, and forgetting the problems of the world. The figures in his art have been simply a starting place for the artist’s lifelong process of moving towards abstraction, in ideas and images.
In the process, he has found himself.

“I’m not chasing the art world and what it’s supposed to be, I’m trying to find what I’m supposed to be… That’s what I’ve been doing for 50 years.” – Nathan Oliveira

From the EBSQ Archives: Scrotum and Taboo- The Reactionary, Visionary Paintings of Odd Nerdrum by John Seed

As I left the Forum Gallery in Los Angeles after viewing the exhibition “Odd Nerdrum: Current Work,” I took about two steps down Beverly Boulevard before I stepped on a steaming fresh dog turd. While I scraped my shoe on the curb, I had to laugh, since shit seemed to be a theme for the afternoon. Just ten minutes before I had been contemplating a sprawling 76 1/2″ by 106 1/2″ canvas by the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, titled “Shit Rock.”
Self-portrait in Golden Cape, 1998 167 x 144 cm
Self-portrait in Golden Cape, 1998 167 x 144 cm
In this dimly lit canvas, three nude female figures squat in a group, their posteriors facing the viewer. Each woman extrudes a broad, healthy turd into the brooding Icelandic world which Nerdrum’s visions typically inhabit. This world, which the painter claims is set in the future, seems to be a place where whatever Freud claimed, at the opening of the twentieth century, was repressed or hidden in Western culture, is reclaimed by Nerdrum as a vitalistic principle.Erections, pissing, shitting, fighting, are common Nerdrum subjects, while sexual acts are not. Although many might find some of his works obscene, the artist seems to avoid portrayal of sexual acts since that is the realm of common pornography, and his work avoids any imagery that might have a mundane popular appeal. The shameless display of ids and egos appeal to the artist as more truly provocative and passionate.
In Freud’s lifetime there were bordellos in Vienna where clients could pay to see women defecate into glass bowls. In Nerdrum’s vision, the coprophiliac, the necrophiliac, the scatological and the phallic are all disclosed in public. Nerdrum creates a heterosexual world where civilization and technology have wilted as a natural result of their evils against nature, and the tribal society of Nordic peoples that remains, many of them twins or clones, no longer need to keep their bodies, their desires, or their biological predispositions hidden.Fetishism no longer exists, and has been replaced by Post-Pagan rituals which retain traces of Christianity. Civilization, Nerdrum seems to say, is a set of taboos which can fall away and reveal our authentic passions and spirituality. In the setting of a gallery, a group of Nerdrum paintings also seems to serve as a litmus test which can determine who does or does not belong in the world of the cultural elite. If you like the work, you must belong.

Wanderers by the Sea, 2001 78 x 101 1/2 inches
Wanderers by the Sea, 2001 78 x 101 1/2 inches
While I was looking at the show, a gallery representative was having an animated conversation with a young potential client. The client, who was not ready for a “major” work (“Shit Rock” is priced at $265,000.00 ) was contemplating a smaller work perhaps under $100,000.00. When offered a Nerdrum that portrayed a mother and child, he responded that if he would were to buy something, it would need to be more “difficult.”I would assume that many clients for Nerdrum’s Los Angeles will come from the world of entertainment, especially television. After all, for people who go through tremendous struggles to create images that will be popular across a broad demographic, within acceptable cultural standards, Nerdrum’s “difficult” images must be a welcome relief. The violence in “The Sopranos” is graphic and edgy, but we will not be seeing shitting women on any network soon.As a cultural emblem, having a Nerdrum in your living room is a way of saying to your friends “I may live in a four million dollar house with a security system, but there is nothing I can’t handle.”

Another sense of relief that Nerdrum can offer to Hollywood’s wealthy comes from the types of bodies he displays. Every Nerdrum figure, from the babies swaddled in hides to the tribal elders appear unmodified, except by weather and nature. Nerdrum’s Arctic world is thousands of miles from the beaches of “Baywatch.”

A major strength of the artist’s work is his virtuoso technique. Nerdrum grinds and mixes his own oil colors, and has a Rembrandtian range of textures, glazes and effects. In one of his skies, the lower edge of oil-laden brushstrokes, when dried, becomes the suggestion of relief that forms the shadow for the bottom of a cloud. In the faces of his figures, eyes water, lips crack and drool, and skin reflects the Northern light. On the strength of his technique alone, Nerdrum has joined a small group of living painters who seem to have the alchemy of turning paint into flesh: Lucien Freud would be one of the few working at this level. Few young artists seem to have the training to have a painterly dialogue with Nerdrum at his level.
Summer Nights , 2001 71 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches
Summer Nights , 2001 71 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches
When Goya retired to Bordeaux, he created his most “difficult” works, including an image of Chronos (time) devouring his own child. Goya had lived through revolution, illness and war, and his dark vision was personal and deeply embedded. In contrast, Nerdrum himself, and his clients live in societies where their wealth, access to modern medicine, and the protection provided by modern defense give them an easy real world exit from the painter’s spare, imagined world. Whether the purchasers of Odd Nerdrum’s paintings will really be able to live with the punishing gap between their own protected lives, and that of Nerdrum’s Post-Modern Vikings remains to be seen.Imagine if the owner of a Nerdrum could invite peasants from any third world nation into his home (I suspect male collectors will dominate the Nerdrum market) and let them see what he had collected. How would he explain that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a painting that depicting women shitting on a rock, or a man with a rifle leaving bed to protect his family on an ominous summer night?Wouldn’t these things just be too familiar if you lived in the Sudan, or in Mexico? Or in Afghanistan?

From the EBSQ Archives: Thomas Hart Benton’s connection to the Modern Art Synchromists Movement by Diane D Barton

In the world of Art History, the name ‘Thomas Hart Benton’ is synonymous with Regionalist art. But those same roots that are bound to images of the Regionalists are intertwined to Synchromism, are often overlooked. When one examines the work closely the clues are found within Benton’s choice of color, composition and form.

Synchromism was founded by Stanton MacDonald Wright (Fig. 1) and Morgan Russell, while they were in Paris during 1912. Together they created the first official works, produced anywhere, which were considered ‘nonrepresentational’. Simply put, Synchromism was a method of painting that set itself apart by using fractured forms and rich colors ; based on using the color theories of Tudor Hart along with the sculptural qualities of Michelangelo.

Benton initially met Wright in the winter of 1909, and immersed himself in the Synchromistic methods. Unfortunately, the only way we can now examine the influence of this time period had on his work is by drawing conclusions from his later work, as much of the work created from 1914-1917 was destroyed in a fire at his home in Neosho Missouri in 1917. (Fig. 2, 3)

Eventually Benton’s work with the Synchromists was shown in the highly selective New York, ‘Forum Exhibit’ of 1916. His works, in his own words were…’created using the Tudor Hart’s color system’ Following the Synchromist practice at the time. I based the composition of these pictures on Michelangelo sculpture. However, as the multiple-figure composition was again occupying my thoughts. I selected Michelangelo’s early relief the ‘Battle of the Centaurs,’ rather than a single figure to serve as a model for my creations.’ (Fig 4)


Throughout Benton’s career Michelangelo’s work continued to be a major influence. Intrigued with the three dimensional form, Benton began creating sculptures and began to make dioramas (or miniature scene) of intended two dimensional works. He would begin by forming clay models, which were somewhat like a relief sculpture (projecting slightly from the surface). He would then create numerous drawings from the models, if the idea presented did not translate well to two dimensions, he would rework it until it did.

Benton’s work expresses the influence of the Synchromists in his choice of color palette and composition, particularly in his early work titled ‘Bubbles’. (Fig. 5) ‘Bubbles’ was created by Benton during 1916, during his direct involvement with the Synchromists, and is visually similar to the work of Stanton MacDonald Wright (fig. 6) This similarly can be seen by the use of the composition , and the circular shapes used to contrast the angular ones, along with the hues used throughout. The similarities can be seen in the upper and lower left corner, where the space is broken up in a similar fashion with curvilinear lines created with circular shapes that help to draw your eye throughout the composition. In many of Benton’s work there is a triad color scheme, again the physical rhythm of the human form that ties his work to Michelangelo, and the familiar color theme of red, yellow, blue. (figs. 7, 8, 9)


Finally lets reexamine a few of his abstract work to help us see the correlation between then and his later work. In ‘Constructionist Still Life’, created in 1917-1918 (fig 10) there again is a triad color scheme, geometric shapes which later would be replaced by the human form. For instance in his work ‘Rita and T.P.’ (fig 11), although the colors differ, due to the central vortex, each composition is very similar and are easily interchangeable.

Later, Benton was to claim he dropped the Synchromistic palette and focused his work on single figures and groups. Eventually the abstracted qualities become secondary and Benton would try and eliminate many of the abstract devices. In ‘Self portrait with Rita’ created in 1922, (fig 12) one can once again see the use of a triadic color scheme based on red, yellow, blue.

If one compares the work to ‘Bubbles’ created in 1916 the eye is following the same path throughout the image (fig 13), with the eye again following the curve of the letter ‘J’ up through the upper right of the image.

In 1948 two of the works created by Benton continued to carry on these same two characteristics previously shown in his work. In both ‘The Apple of Discord’ (Fig. 14) and ‘Poker Night’ (Fig. 15) the female is presented in a traditional Renaissance Michelangelo style. Once again the viewer is observing a red, yellow, blue color theme, as seen in his work while with the Sychromist. (Fig. 16 and 17)

From the EBSQ Archives: Frida Kahlo- Identity/Duality by Amie R Gillingham

The period between 1934 and 1940 was tumultuous for Frida Kahlo. Although her husband, Diego Rivera, had been unfaithful in the past, an affair with her sister Cristina was too much for her to bear. During this period she separated from twice and then divorced Rivera at his request. In addition, her various health problems continued to plague her; she required several operations at this time, including an abortion.

The Broken Column, 1944
The Broken Column, 1944

All of this wracked havoc on her delicate sense of self-esteem. Despite an excellent reception to her art both at home and abroad, she felt she was nothing without Diego.

It was during this time that Frida began a series of paintings which delved into the roots of her selfdom. As she was a mestiza, she was having something of an identity crisis, along with the rest of post-revolutionary Mexico. Her personal experience was completely analogous with the restlessness and confusion of her beloved homeland. Most of the population was a mix of Spanish and the indigenous peoples to some degree. (Frida’s husband even had a claim to a title in Spain which he sold to a cousin for funds to continue his painting in Europe.)
Most of the “mixing” had occurred several generations before, but Frida had the problem of being a first generation mestiza with of the identity problems inherent in a mixed heritage. Her father was a German Jew and her mother was an indigenous Mexican/Spanish mix. After the revolution, Mexico tried to reassert its pre-Conquest sense of self for a new, nationalistic cultural identity with Pre-Columbian society as its model. All things Eurocentric were reviled. Frida as “the patriot,” therefore, had the task of trying to reconcile her Mexican self with her European self in her search for wholeness.

My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936
My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936

This tendency was first explored in My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) which she executed in 1936. In this painting, she illustrates busts of her Mexican maternal and German paternal grandparents connected to her parents via a blood-like red ribbon which she (as a naked child) holds at the center of the composition. Her mother and father are in their wedding garb whose formality is undercut by the anatomically-correct fetus superimposed on her mother’s portrait. A sperm cell fertilizing an egg furthers this idea of fertility and reproduction. Frida stands stoically in the middle courtyard of Casa Azul, the house in which she was born (and later died). Her home lies poised between the exotic landscape of Mexico and the sea, implying her family’s European ties. In this painting, Frida does not yet seem to be questioning her origins so much as showing herself as the culmination of them. Still, the delicate balance between her two worlds is inherent.

My Wet Nurse and I, 1937
My Wet Nurse and I, 1937

Her next candidate for the series is My Wet Nurse and I (1937). The dichotomy between her Mexican and European selves is apparent. She had always felt that weakness stemmed from her German blood. In this painting, a wet nurse with an Aztec mask nurses an infant Frida in European garb with an adult head. The landscape is lush with vegetation and the sky is raining milk upon them. Milk drips from both breasts as well (a recurrent theme of hers); the breast she is nursing from has vegetation superimposed on it, emphasizing both fertility and nourishment.

This image is fascinating for many reasons. The composition is in many ways traditional, evoking icons of the Madonna and Child. In this vein, even the adult head is not odd as medieval art often showed “Man-child” images of Christ with his Mother. Yet the traditional religious imagery is at odds with the blatant pagan aspect of the Earth as mother. Some believe the nurse is a metaphor for Frida herself, with the indigenous side of her personality lending strength and sustenance to her weaker, European self. Others feel it may be a reference to her Mexican mother. This ambiguity cropped up earlier when she painted My Birth around the time of her mother’s last illness and death. Regardless of the various biographical readings, the schism between her selves was becoming more obvious in her work.

The Two Fridas, 1939
The Two Fridas, 1939

The apex of the series is The Two Fridas (1939). After returning home from an exhibit of her work in Paris, she divorced Rivera. This painting illustrating a literal split between her two selves is from this period of turmoil and self-doubt. The composition is striking. On the right is the Mexican Frida in traditional tehuana dress. On the left is European Frida in a colonial white dress, possibly intended to be wedding garb (it is similar in many ways to her mother’s wedding dress in “Family Tree”). The two women are seated on a green bench, holding hands. The anatomy of their hearts is superimposed on them both; the one belonging to the European self is seen through a hole in her dress at the breast. A blood line originates at a cameo of Diego as a child held by the Frida on the right. It twines between them both and is ultimately terminated by a medical implement held by the Frida on the left. Blood stains intermingle with the red flowers at the hem of the dress.

This is the painting for which she is best known. Certainly, it is one of the largest (27″ x 27″) which makes it all the more notable. Also, it is one of the few self-portraits she has done in which she is seen in full. The serene clouds and placid look on the two faces is juxtaposed with the graphic medical imagery to illustrate her internal conflict. The composition is so balanced that the hem of the tehuana skirt is our only cue that she is feeling vulnerabilities which she has come to symbolize with her European incarnation. The efforts of the Mexican self to nurture the second frida have been thwarted by the weaker half.

It is interesting to note that Diego loved and encouraged Frida to dress in the native style that was in en vogue at this time. In fact, Kahlo kept up the style long after it had gone out of fashion to make it uniquely her own. Yet Frida associated her indigenous self with Rivera. Hence, after their initial split, she abandoned her traditional garb and cut her hair as an act of rebellion.

After their reconciliation and remarriage in 1940, Frida again took to wearing her native costumes. It would seem that her internal war, on this matter at least, had been won, if only temporarily. Continued self-portraits in native dress coupled with Mexican landscapes and still lifes strongly support this.

Tree of Hope, Stay Stong, 1946
Tree of Hope, Stay Stong, 1946

It is only when her health seriously begins to decline again in 1946 that the topic of duality is broached again with Tree of Hope, Stay Strong. Kahlo reintroduces dual depictions of herself. Her European self is lying on a gurney, her bloody back towards the viewer. On the right is her indigenous self, long identified as her inner source of strength, dressed in a red tehuana dress. She is holding an ex-voto style banner with the title in one hand and a metal corset not unlike the one worn in The Broken Column (of two years earlier) in the other. The idea of duality is further heightened by the differentiation between day and night to divide the composition in half. In the background is the metaphoric barren Mexican landscape which is a hallmark of much of her more surrealistic work.
It is not odd that the splintering of self occurs again in this period. Although her life with Rivera had become more stable in their second marriage, her health had taken a downward swing from which she never fully recovered. All of her self-portraits at this time emphasize her pain. Kahlo was having problems with chronic recurrent depression, alcohol abuse, and addiction to many of her prescription pain killers. Much of her painting was done in a specially made easel so she could paint while confined to her bed. Rivera was spending much of his time away to work on his own art, so she was alone for much of this ordeal. Hence, much of her self-doubt and insecurities were resurfacing in her art.

Although Kahlo’s work is intensely autobiographical on the surface, it can be seen as her own patriotic metaphor. Her work was able to transcend the personal to have political and national relevance. Frida held her self up, both in her art and her life, as the ideal post-Revolutionary Mexican. She was politically active right up until her death in 1954. In her home, she surrounded herself with an ever-growing collection Pre-Columbian folk art and indigenous crafts. Frida wrote her own role as the proto-typical Mexican and she played it meticulously. Kahlo meant for her art as well as her life to serve as the example that her “split-personality syndrome” homeland so desperately needed. In exploring and attempting to heal her own schism between worlds with her paintings, she helped Mexico to heal its own.


  • lecture notes, Modern Mexican Painting, University of Pittsburgh 1996
  • Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo: The PaintingsHarperCollins Publishers, Inc. New York 1991
  • Rivera, Diego. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (with Gladys March)Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1991
  • Schrimer’s Visual Library. Frida Kahlo: Masterpieces W. W. Norton, Munich 1994

this article was originally presented in 1996 at the University of Pittsburgh without the accompanying pictures. All work shown by Frida Kahlo–ed.