July 3, 2012

Happy Fourth of July!

I just a few days ago stumbled on this picture, by one of the greatest of American artists, JC Leyendecker...

J. C. Leyendecker, Uncle Sam at the Helm, July Fourth, 1936

And if perchance you say, "I don't see anything that says, 'great artist,'" ....... then ZOOM IN....

Detail, . C. Leyendecker, Uncle Sam at the Helm, July Fourth, 1936

This may be a picture of Uncle Sam, but we are not in Kansas anymore, baby. Look at that hair! Like scales of armor, or the wing-covers of insects. And those white lines defining throat and cheek--stunning brushwork. Look at that hand! SEE IT! And then look at the whole man in the larger picture. There is nothing, not a single wrinkle, not a hair, that doesn't thrum with the tension and strength of him. Leyendecker has made Uncle Sam a god.

One thing that fascinates me is that Leyendecker was queer. And this is evident everywhere in his art, to my modern San Francisco eyes. Yet people of his time didn't seem to notice it. They didn't "see" it at all. He often painted pictures showing a beautiful woman surrounded by three or four handsome men. But typically the woman's eyes are downcast, and she is somehow subdued. While the men are tensely alive, and their glances seem to flare towards each other, not at the female who is ostensibly at the center of things...

This one is a favorite of mine. These are officers of the American forces of the First World War, and a nurse. Presumably bound for France with the AEF...

Lyendecker, WWI officers and nurse shipboard

Look at the eyes! Who is the Marine officer on the right looking at? Not the gal, I think. Look at his expression. Wolfish. Look at the Navy guy. So alive, so amoral. Did that wistful woman cause that smile? I doubt it. Look at her. She's lost whatever she yearned for. She's receding into the background. She's turning into ice before our eyes. She's out of it.

And observe that Army officer with his back to us. So ambiguous, so conflicted. Perhaps caught in a spider's web. Is that what Navy boy is enjoying? I think so. The real drama here is between the two men in Khaki.

This is one of the oddest pieces of art I've ever seen. Yet I'd guess that 99% of people in 1918 would have perceived it as a totally innocent and light hearted moment.

Posted by John Weidner at July 3, 2012 8:25 PM
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