Friday, September 03, 2010

when a scary painting becomes a madeleine...


i was looking at last night, and he has a really interesting post on a 1958 fire at moma. no, i don't remember the fire... i wasn't born yet... but somewhere in the middle of the post was the image pictured above of pawel tchelitchew's 1942 painting hide and seek. i remember tchelitchew having a presence in the joseph cornell biography "utopia parkway", but more than that, i instantly remembered that my mom had a pretty large reproduction of this painting hanging in our living room when i was a very young child.

greg's blog story mentions that the painting has always been one of moma's most popular, particularly with kids; which i find hard to believe, because it scared the hell out of me as a child. while most people seem to enjoy finding the children in the landscape, i always saw the vines and branches that made up their faces and bodies as veins, so the kids always looked to me like they were skinless ghosts. they also seemed to be screaming, or crying or dead; as well as being left alone to wander eternally in a forest.

i do remember staring at it a lot (it faced our dining table), but i don't remember it as something fascinating, as much as i remember it being very disturbing and creepy, and the notion of zillions of reproductions in zillions of homes seems pretty darn strange to me. what is interesting is how discovering the image again has suddenly started to reveal in my mind's eye the entire room that surrounded the painting, much of which i hadn't thought about or "seen" in 25 years or so.

hide and seek was rather large, but it was hung on a wall that was salon style and i remember now a number of other things that were on that wall, some victorian mirrors and a very large skinny vertical painting in dark greys and browns of a woman's face in a sort of christy-girl kind of style, but with a lot of textured paint (i remember running my hands over the surface of this painting a lot). strangely, that painting was just about the exact size of a painting in my upcoming show that was based on my own dimensions.

as i got a little older, the creepiness of hide and seek evolved into more of a kind of trippiness, feeling more like a virtuosic high-school stoner notebook drawing. i certainly remember staring at it a lot more at that time, but as a suddenly angst-ridden teenager, the painting felt even darker.

so, of course, it's interesting to me that tchelitchew's painting was so popular - particularly as it was painted around the start of WWII - because the image seems suggest to me a field of orphans or lost spirits... there's so much ghostliness to its mood, and emotionally i think along with the creepiness, it always felt like an incredibly sad painting to me.

looking at the image this morning, i think it would make a perfect cover for agota kristof's book "the notebook", which tells the story of two boys during WWII. it's an uber creepy tale of darkness, that has a kind of detached emotional quality, that feels similar to tchelitchew's painting... here is some of the description of the story from amazon:

"With icy dispassion, Kristof, herself a refugee of war, spins a modern-day fable set in Eastern Europe during WW II. It records, in the form of a notebook written by two small boys, the nightmarish ordeal of twins brought by their mother from the bomb-spattered Big Town to their grandmother's home in Little Town. Grandmother, whom they call the Witch, harbors the boys only because they may prove useful. But they are wilier than she, spying on her through holes in the floor of the attic she can no longer reach, deliberately wounding each other to inure themselves to pain, learning the language of the occupying forces. The officer who has commandeered a room in the house takes them to bed, first making them beat him until the blood runs... They boggle at nothing: not theft, sodomy or murder, which last, when necessary, they manage with insouciance, having become a pair of soulless charmers, unflinching proof that monsters are not born but made. They are truly spoiled by war and their terrible, unforgettable history tells in microcosm the tale of a whole people warped and destroyed..."

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Blogger MONDOBLOGO said...

Thanks for the post. You might enjoy some of these images....

8:41 PM  
Blogger Greg Allen said...

yow, I can't imagine living with this painting in my house.

I'd bet that because it was taught to visiting school groups for so many years, familiarity helped breed popularity for what is, you're right, a creepy painting.

When the MoMA lecturer said that teachers always ask about it and are sad to find out it's not on view, I immediately wondered what that said about how art is taught.

On the one hand, Tchelitchew's painting is easy to explain just because it's figurative. And it promises to reward prolonged looking.

But what's lost, then, is what the image "means" or how kids receive it, and if/how a Where's Waldo-style treasure hunt viewing technique might skew against abstraction.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

is this the tree that appears in your scary picture - they seem to be related (even the scarecrow and colours of the 4th grade are reflected from/in this one
and it is spooky

7:55 PM  
Blogger ArtSparker said...

Brings to mind the M.R. James story "Lost Hearts".

I read The Painted Bird, and Young Torless, so I am going to take a pass on The Notebook.

8:32 AM  

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