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‘Portrait of Jennie’

6 Dec

Robert Brackman’s painting of Jennifer Jones as ‘Jennie’

Recently, I chanced upon an old book containing the Robert Nathan novella, Portrait of Jennie. The William Dieterle-David O. Selznick movie based on it was one of my favorites while growing up. (It was often shown on the Sunday or Saturday Afternoon Movie on our local indy station.)

The plot of both book and movie involves a starving (literally starving!) New York artist named Eben who meets a strange little girl in Central Park named Jennie. Every time Eben sees Jennie, she’s a few years older, even though only months or weeks have passed since her last appearance.

Eventually, he paints a haunting portrait of her as a young adult (painted in real life by 20th Century portraitist Robert Brackman) that makes him famous, and, of course, falls in love with her as soon as it’s decently possible. Eben is played by Joseph Cotton (The Third Man) and Jennie is played by Jennifer Jones (Song of Bernadette), who shortly afterward became David Selznick’s wife. The Brackman portrait allegedly hung in the Selznick-Jones household, until, I presume, they divorced. (Jones later married the uber-rich industrialist Norton Simon, who gave us the wonderful Norton Simon art museum in Pasadena, California.) I’m not sure what happened to the portrait after that.

In the movie, Jennie is a ghost who died about ten years before the time of the story, in a tragic drowning accident off the coast of New England. The only person who can see or speak to her is Eben.

The original tale is more complex; in it, Jennie is not a ghost at all, but apparently, a time-traveler. Eben’s friends and landlady can see and speak to her when she makes her “apperances.” She still drowns at the end, but it happens in the fall of the same year that the story is set in. The exact nature of Jennie’s appearances is not spelled out directly in the book, so the reader has to supply their own deductive powers to make sense of it all.

My feeling is that in the original story, Jennie is time-traveling repeatedly during the five or six minutes before she dies in the freezing Atlantic. Some supernatural being–God or an angel–has granted her dying wishes, which is to relive important moments of her childhood and also have a great love affair before she dies. (The book has a fair amount of religious references.) When she dies, she can’t time-travel anymore, and must leave Eben behind forever. He’s bereft, but believes that they will be together some day in the afterlife.

The romance isn’t the whole point in the story; there’s a lot about Eben as an artist, and his struggles with feelings of worthlessness and artistic frustration that rings very true. I wish I had a friend like Gus, the salt-of-the-earth taxi driver who helps get Eben an important gig as a mural painter for a workingman’s pub.

Various editions of the book can be found on used book sites, although it’s out-of-print and fairly rare. It seems to have fallen out of copyright, as a Kindle version by an apparent self-publisher can be purchased for 99 cents on Amazon. It’s a good read, whether in print or digital form. There’s also a fairly good copy of the movie on YouTube, and it can be purchased in Blue-Ray for a reasonable amount of money; the conventional DVD is out-of-print and quite costly. It’s a lovely film, shot in black and white, with a German Expressionist aesthetic that’s quite affecting. Dieterle shot much of the establishing footage through a filter that looks like the texture of a canvas, and also used noir-ish shadows and compositions liberally.

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Impressionists From…Australia?

3 Jul

I didn’t know this was actually a thing, but there was an Australian Impressionist movement in the mid-late 19th Century. Some fine work on display in this article.

Art From Actors

30 Jun

As reported by the New York Times, a new Off-Broadway production features a set decorated with the artwork of actors such as Rosie O’Donnell and Billy Dee Williams. The play is called “Out of the Mouths of Babes.” The article features several examples of the work. I never would have figured Tina Louise (“Ginger” from Gilligan’s Island) for an Abstract Expressionist!

Sample Paintings of Joni Mitchell

27 Jun

Some samples of the paintings of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell are on display at this art blog. Her work features many self-portraits, as well as those of some famous friends, including Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.

I enjoyed the obvious, probably tongue-and-cheek references to Van Gogh and Edward Hopper. Her work is worth checking out!

Early American Folk Art On Display

19 Jun

The St. Louis Art Museum has a show currently running called “Self-Taught Genius,” a collection of artwork and craft items made by self-taught, early American artists.  I particularly like the wooden American flag that’s depicted at the top of the article; it reminds me of the American flag series of paintings of late 20th Century master Jasper Johns. If you are in the St. Louis area, it might be worth checking out.

Permanent Sand Paintings From German Artist

17 Jun

Sand paintings are an old art form, but preservation is another story. Sometimes the finished works are preserved under glass cases, but most of them probably just get blown away, such as the elaborately colored sand painting in Martin  Scorsese’s film, Kundun.

Now, a German artist has found a way to preserve his sand paintings for posterity by painting a slow-acting adhesive on canvas and then pouring and working the sand onto it in the desired patterns. The artist, Tim Bengel, sand-paints portraits and cityscapes in a limited palette of black and white sand, with accents provided in what looks like gold leaf.

Several of his pieces are displayed at the link; they are pretty spectacular,  IMHO. I have added special art sand to some of my work before, but mostly to provide background texture, not as a main course.

Animated Van Gogh

17 Jun

A Polish film currently in the works features an animated treatment of the life of Van Gogh. The film, entitled Loving Vincent, features more than 63,000 paintings created in the artist’s style, rendered by a total of 80 artists.

It’s interesting that I turned up an item about both Van Gogh and Gauguin today. How many people know that they were once roommates? And that Gauguin thought Van Gogh’s famous impasto style was a shameful waste of expensive paint?