09 November 2013


"El si pronuncian y la mano alargan/
Al primero que llega."

"They swear to be faithful yet marry the first man who proposes."

Sometimes the way in to a picture begins with an emotional frisson.  Aesthetic appreciation or  historical underpinnings may add layers to the experience but the visceral response never lets go.   Stagedoom by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), one of several works the artist made  based on Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos of 1795-97, is that kind of work.  

In Goya's original (below), all the participants are morally compromised, from the nubile woman offering herself to the highest bidder, to the church fathers who guide her, to the watching crowd.   Thompson made significant alterations to the image.  The young woman's nakedness symbolizes her vulnerability and isolation; the mask dehumanizes her by hiding her facial expression. The priests offer no comfort; their teachings imprison her.  And who could doubt the evil intentions of the hovering bird-like creatures, a frequent feature in Thompson's paintings.  The smiling death's head gives the game away.

That Thompson was attracted to Goya's jaundiced view of humanity is obvious.  and known  A female viewer brings to Stagedoom  an understanding of  the long, painful road to womanhood with its potential for physical and emotional violation that has its roots in Thompson's  fraught vision of relations between men and women, but is something different as much as Thompson's vision is different from Goya's.

In an alternative  history of post-war art the paintings of Bob Thompson  would have a prominent place.  He was based in New York in the 1960s, although his interest in Goya drew him to Spain in 1962.  His watercolors suggest the intimate scale of scenes painted on the steps leading up to the church altar  but he also worked at the monumental scale favored by the Abstract Expressionists and in the vivid saturated colors of the emerging Pop Art movement.  Unlike Andy Warhol, whose appropriation of advertising images constituted a poke in the eye to all but a knowing few when they were made, Bob Thompson worked in utter, bold seriousness.   The artists he revered, Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Nicolas Poussin were masters of classical European art who gave Thompson, a young black man from Louisville, Kentucky, his symbolic lexicon.  Based on their compositions, Thompson made technicolor nightmares where humans and animals  interact to reveal truths that often go unspoken, unacknowledged.

I began to think, my god, I look at Poussin and think he's got it all there.  Why are all these people running around trying to be original when they should just go ahead and be themselves and that's the originality of it all...You can't draw a new form... [the] human figure almost encompasses every form there is...it hit me that why don't I work with these things that are already there...because that is what I respond to most of all.” - Bob Thompson
I think...painting should be like the theater, a presentation of something...To relate, like painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance... painters were employed to educate the people...they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening...I am not specifically trying to do that...I have much more freedom, but in a certain way, I am trying to show what' happening, what's going on,,,in my own private way.” - Bob Thompson

1. Bob Thompson - Stagedoom, 1962,  opaque watercolor and charcoal on woven paper, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Francisco Goya - El si pronuncian y la mano alargan, plate number 2 from Los Caprichos, c. 1795-97,  intaglio print, Brooklyn Museum.

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