WALT KUHN 1877-1949
Green Pom-Pom, 1944
Oil on canvas, 30 X 25" (76.20 x 63.50 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 986-0-108
Though he was an accomplished landscape and still-life painter, Walt Kuhn's mature career as an artist is almost exclusively identified with his haunting portraits of circus and vaudeville performers, like Green Pom-Pom. Kuhn was completely at home in the world of show business. His mother had introduced him to theater as a child and he went on to discover the delights of vaudeville, burlesque, and the circus on his own. In fact, from 1922 to 1926, wary that becoming financially dependent on the sale of his work would make him vulnerable to undue influence from dealers and critics, Kuhn earned a successful living designing and directing touring stage revues.
The performers depicted in Kuhn's paintings were not merely models but individuals he knew professionally. Yet Kuhn's paintings are not true portraits in the traditional sense. He was less concerned with the individual personalities of his sitters than with presenting them as timeless metaphors of the human condition. Beneath the mask of theatrical make-up and the tawdry glitter of the costumes, each figure asserts a somber human dignity. Kuhns entertainers are the heirs of Watteads Gilles from the cornmedia dell'arte, descended through the dancers and cabaret performers of Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Indeed, a contemporary critic observed that one "gradually realizes ... the unbroken chain of French figure painting" had found its "last representative in Walt Kuhn, an American."
Green Porn-Porn is the last in a series of three-quarter length portraits of show girls that the artist began in 1938. Distinct from Kuhn's other images of show girls, these figures are dressed in close-fitting, military-style costumes. Each of the women probably helped select her own costume from the large rack Kuhn kept at his studio-costumes which he designed and his wife made. According to Kuhn, he often encouraged models to choose their own attire as a way of helping him preserve the "freshness of his seeing," just as he insisted on continuing to work directly in front of a model because he needed "the challenge of the physical fact in front of him."
The young entertainer in Green Pom-Pom confronts the viewer with the startling frankness typical of Kuhn's figures. Her heavily mascaraed and shadowed eyes gaze at us from an expressionless face, with a deliberate dispassion that seems at once candid and unimaginably remote. Her sullen sensuality imbues the picture with the inescapable disquiet of broken dreams. Stylistically, the painting possesses the quiet authority and spare grandeur that characterize Kuhn's best work after 1940. The figure has an insistent monumentality. The brassy, dissonant color that still attracted the artist in earlier paintings has been abandoned in favor of the subtle richness of a limited palette. The pallid flesh tones and cream-colored vest direct the viewer's attention to the powerful drama of the figure's head, further accentuated by the exaggerated epaulets that project from the girl's shoulders and form the base of a compositional triangle culminating with the green pom-pom.
Kuhn considered the classic concern for the sculptural reality of the human form to be the dominant theme of his mature work. His observation about another of the paintings in this series applies equally to Green Pom-Pom, 'A lump of weighted form, the one, the universal substance of art. Trying to get it makes art history. The Greeks had it, lost it; Rubens caught it, then it slipped through Van Dyck's fingers. Cezanne chopped it up to see how it is made; his followers fooled with the pieces. Here it is whole again."
NANNETTE V. MACIEJUNES