30 August 2022

Bob Thompson's Antique Figures


"The stars are scattered in the sky
irrespective of our need
for swans and lyres and charioteers
Our dreams are foolish
and our constellations
fictions

that wouldn't fool a child. We reach them anyhow
as if God were a coloring book
as if, like the blacksmith god,
we thought to catch Love
in a net."
 -- "Hephaestus" by Linda Bamber from Metropolitan Tang, Jaffrey, NH, David R. Godine: 2008.



Currently touring  major American museums is the first retrospective in over twenty years devoted to  the African American artist  Bob Thompson, This House Is Mine  (Smart Museum in Chicago, High Museum in Atlanta, Colby Museum of Art in Maine).

This House Is Mine stakes Thompson's claim to be the inheritor of European traditions of Greek and Roman mythology and Renaissance Italy.  It's no exaggeration to say that Thompson's output was voluminous - more than 1,000 works in oil, watercolor, gouache. In a period of full time painting that lasted eight brief years, really a mote in the eye of Western art, Thompson  was fiendishly productive; he moved so quickly, onlookers had trouble keeping up.

Riff is a term of art for Thompson whose friendships with New York jazz musicians are frequently  commemorated in his paintings. He riffed  on Piero della Francesca (illusionistic spaces) and Francisco de Goya (dark and doom) and, here and there, on surrealism, too. Old Masters were  deeply unfashionable at the time, leaving the field to Thompson and he made the most of it. He made hiss first trip to Italy in 196, thanks to a grant.

His paintings are populated with human and animal figures mingled together, if uneasily.  Crowds of  monstrous creatures emerge from the shadows (see the brown bat at the far right (above) in The Drying After. Theatrical scenes become allegories of contemporary nightmares through distorted perspectives. 
All are saturated colors like none seen since the time of the French Fauves (Wild Beasts).

Bob Thompson (1937-1966) died in Rome in 1966 following gall bladder surgery. 

Image: Bob Thompson - The Drying After, 1961, oil on wood panel, Art Institute of Chicago

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