Mastering the old masters: Paul Cadmus

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2012 |

It is one of the platitudes of recent culture, certainly since the 1960s, that the function of art is to challenge and provoke the public and the powers that be. For the record, art does not need to be challenging: it needs to be good, although it occasionally attains both goals and more often achieves neither. As it happens, the paintings and drawings of the late Paul Cadmus were able in equal measure to delight contemporaries with their technique and to provoke them with their satiric content. And on one occasion he managed unintentionally to scandalize half the nation.

Bar Italia by Cadmus, 1953-1955. Tempera on wood, 37 ½ by 45 ¼ inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C., gift of S. C. Johnson and Son Inc. 

Cadmus does not fit easily into the conventional rubrics of modern art, since he was part vanguardist and part traditionalist. Born in New York City in 1904, he was almost predestined to become a traditional painter. Both his parents were artists of a fairly conservative cast: his father had studied with Robert Henri, the doyen of turn-of-the-century American painters, while his mother illustrated children's books. At fifteen Cadmus began studying classical drawing at the National Academy of Design, where he was taught by Charles Hinton, a former student of the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Cadmus graduated from the academy at twenty, and two years later he had his first exhibition at the Blue Mask Gallery in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

But the artistic career of Paul Cadmus began long before that, when he was not yet ten years old and one of his sketches from a children's drawing contest was published in the New York Herald Tribune. It is almost incredible to think that, from that time until his death in 1999, a week before his ninety-fifth birthday, he was painting and drawing constantly and in a largely academic style that changed only slightly over the course of almost a century. As such, he could count Claude Monet and Damien Hirst as his contemporaries.

But even though Cadmus was rooted in academic painting, he never seemed to belong among those conservative, even reactionary artists-society portraitists and the like-who embrace a more establishmentarian aesthetic through their deep-rooted antagonism to the art of their contemporaries. With his precise and punctilious draftsmanship, Cadmus may have felt profoundly alienated from the New York school and the abstract expressionists who emerged in the 1940s, but he was a central figure in that American branch of surrealism that was formally influenced by the intense, supercharged renderings of Salvador Dalí, among others. The term "magic realism" has been applied to this sort of art, in which Cadmus was joined by George Tooker, Jared French, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Ivan Albright. All of them favored a precise, almost illustrational technique that owed as much to the surrealists as to such painters of the American scene as Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop.

At the same time, however, there was perhaps no artist of that generation who studied the old masters with greater intelligence or with more material reward than Cadmus. His debt to these forebears is evident in a painting that precipitated one of the biggest controversies in American art of the last century. It occurred when Cadmus submitted The Fleet's In! (Fig. 1) to an exhibition that was arranged by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1934 and mounted at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.

Like so many works by Paul Cadmus, The Fleet's In! revives an older, almost medieval system of morality, which the painter invokes in order to cast a satiric eye on his contemporaries. To this end, Cadmus depicts the immemorial wantonness of men and women as a complex congress of floozies and hookers on the one hand and sailors and soldiers on the other, all of them gathered in Riverside Park. Though most of the innuendo is heterosexual, there are intimations of homosexuality as well. With few exceptions, the figures are ugly and loutish. What many contemporaries failed to appreciate was that this painting, far from being gratuitously provocative in the manner of modern art, was profoundly conservative. Indeed, it revived the traditional and ancient role of the satirist, who chastens his contemporaries by recalling them to an early stage of morality. "I am a satirist by nature," Cadmus wrote. "Satire is the clearest medium I know to express my love of society and my desire, through criticism, to improve it."1

The organizers of the exhibition missed that point, however, and the work was removed at the last minute by government officials. The controversy that ensued from this act of censorship, as it was perceived, anticipated the controversy, more than half a century later-and admittedly under different circumstances-when photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe were posthumously displayed in 1989, once again at the Corcoran, and partially with money from the National Endowment for the Arts. Then as now, the removal of the work exponentially elevated the career of the alleged victim. Cadmus suddenly rose to nationwide prominence, thanks especially to journalists who sensed a reenactment of the controversy that had erupted, one year earlier, when Diego Rivera dared to paint a sympathetic portrait of Lenin in the lobby of Rockefeller Center. The headline of an article in The American Weekly, "Mr. Cadmus' Painting Makes Him Famous Overnight," tells the whole story. Soon other similarly satiric works by Cadmus, Aspects of Suburban Life, Sailors and Floozies, and Seeing the New Year In, were appearing in art publications and newspapers.

From an art historical perspective, what is most interesting about The Fleet's In!-which, by the way, is not one of his best works-is that it, almost uniquely among the art of its time, was suffused with a careful, patient, and ultimately rewarding study of the old masters. Indeed, few artists of the twentieth century examined these forebears with greater application, or learned more practical tricks of the trade from them, than did Cadmus. Now virtually every modern artist-even the most radical of them-claims to have studied and learned from the old masters. In most cases, such claims are nonsense. But Cadmus truly went to school on them and, perhaps more importantly, he studied different old masters from those who tended to interest his contemporaries. Whereas some of his contemporaries looked to Rembrandt and Ingres, for example, Cadmus loved the Italian painters of the quattrocento, to such a degree that, together with his friend Jared French, he revived painting in egg tempera, with its clear, enameled tones. In the case of The Fleet's In! he was inspired by two engravings of the mid-fifteenth-century Paduan painter Andrea Mantegna, both of which depicted the feasts of Bacchus (see Fig. 3).

But the excellence and significance of the painting consist in the fact that, although rooted in the old masters, it looked entirely contemporary, because Cadmus was able to internalize his influences, even as he learned and derived strength from them. This is evident not only in the figural types and the crosshatchings that define the clothes of his figures, but more importantly in the way in which he has composed them, dividing the painting into two halves, as Mantegna had done. Most skillful of all was his arranging the figural group on the left into a sophisticated oval pattern that was ultimately based on scenes from Roman sarcophagi and that was rediscovered by the Florentines, starting with Giotto, early in the fourteenth century. The viewer's eye is drawn in a counterclockwise movement from the shaggy dog at the base of the composition up the leg of the female figure in the center, who is linked, through a line formed by the hand of one sleeping sailor and the outstretched arm of another, over to the woman at the left, who draws the eye back to the shaggy dog at the base.

This compositional trick consists in rearranging the visible world so that, even as it retains its realness, it nevertheless assumes the grace of abstract form. The discovery of this trick, one of the glories of the old masters tradition, disappeared from art sometime around the middle of the eighteenth century, even before the demise of the old masters tradition itself. Over the next two centuries, any number of artists would study that tradition and imitate it in varying degrees of competence. But only Paul Cadmus perceived that compositional trick and only he was able to re-create it in a contemporary context.

The degree to which the study of the old masters permeates every phase of his career is evident in any number of his paintings. In 1940 Life magazine commissioned him to portray the Herrin Massacre, which occurred in 1925 because of a labor dispute in the mining town of Herrin, Illinois. In this work the figures are somewhat more naturalistic than those of The Fleet's In! and more finely rendered.2 Here as well, the oval form is evident at the base of the painting, while the central figure, with his raised club, recalls depictions of Cain and Abel by Titian and Tintoretto, even as the overall composition looks to Domenichino. But in this work as well, Cadmus ran afoul of the people in power: Life declined to run the work, excellent though it is, for fear of offending organized labor.

Fifteen years later, in 1955, Cadmus painted one of his masterpieces, Bar Italia (Fig. 7),3 which is loosely based on Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi, with hints of Raphael's Transfiguration. Before an elaborate backdrop of classical architecture and ancient ruins, a chaotic scene unfolds in which tourists and Italian locals mingle to the distraction of the waiters. Here, too, Cadmus indulges his satirical streak: amid wild gesticulations and riotous carousal, the viewer perceives the graffiti "Go Away Americans!"

Within the constants of his career, Cadmus kept up with the times. Subway Symphony exhibits some of the painter's perennial formal and contextual interests (Fig. 6). But the work is unmistakably contemporary, at least as of the 1970s, and far seedier even than the world depicted in The Fleet's In! A cast of hundreds is thrown together pell-mell, from a hard-hat to a man with an expansive afro, various figures in drag, and, from the look of things, more than one drug addict. The scrupulous compositions that Cadmus used before are deployed in this work as well, but the colors have a kaleidoscopic variety that is new in his art.

Though Cadmus's paintings and drawings had been homoerotic from the very beginning, this element comes to dominate the work from the last two decades of his career. The male nudes that he now depicted were, of course, based on the sort of classical models that were central to the old masters' pedagogy. But now Cadmus increasingly conceives these figures in isolation. No longer does he place them in the larger compositional context that he displayed so memorably in the works discussed so far.

These later works have been the principal impetus to study and rediscover Paul Cadmus in recent years. And yet, despite their technical proficiency, they do not represent his best paintings, which by and large were completed several decades earlier. In those works, by joining his satirical bent to an intense study of older art, Cadmus produced a beautiful synthesis that was unique in his day and probably impossible today.  

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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