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"HIGH DRAMA: EUGENE BERMAN AND THE
LEGACY OF THE MELANCHOLIC SUBLIME"

September 9 - October 30, 2005 at Long Beach Museum, Long Beach

by Shirle Gottlieb




Eugene Berman, “Perpetuum Immobile,”
1947, oil on canvas, 52 x 41”.








Eugene Berman, “Cassandra,"
1942-43, oil on canvas, 57 x 45 1/2".
Surrounded by Eugene Berman’s dark, mysterious, other-worldly paintings (plus those of fellow neo-Romantic artists who shared his inner vision), it’s easy to forget, momentarily, the de rigueur styles that have been part of the mainstream since the mid-1950s.

Indeed, in the context of the last half-century of abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism (plus the maelstrom of post-modernism), the terms “high drama,” “sublime,” and “melancholy” are precisely the right descriptions for these 92 works curated by Michael Duncan. Think of Berlioz, Baudelaire, and Grand Opera and you’ve got the right flavor.

Born in 1899, Berman was a well-educated Russian Jewish painter who emigrated to America just ahead of the Holocaust. Known throughout Europe as a celebrated artist and theatrical designer, he was obsessed with Greco-Roman ruins, which he painted from 1934 to 1968.

Mysterious scenes such as “Crepuscule,” “Perspective of Columns at Paestrum,” and “Sunset with a Greek Temple in the Distance” appear as ghostly reminders of grand ancient civilizations that were ultimately destroyed. But there they stand--proudly, poetically, silently--as lonely silhouettes in the twilight.

Also captivating is the work of Berman’s contemporary, Christian Berard, whose trenchant “Portrait of Tamara Toumanova” (NYC Ballet’s principle dancer) stares out stoically from a blood-red background; and Kay Sage’s poignant painting of herself, seated alone by the shore after the death of her husband, Yves Tanguy.

The surprise in this exhibit, however, is the work by today’s artists. Resurrecting the legacy of “sublime melancholy,” they have found relevance in figuration, nostalgia, poetic intensity, dramatic illusion, even homo-eroticism--qualities that Modernist high-priest Clement Greenberg deeply scorned.

Wherever you look, evidence of dramatic, narrative content pervades the exhibit. It’s in Cindy Sherman’s tortured photograph of herself (one that resembles Virginia Wolff), and it’s in the romantic plaster cast that Patricia Cronin designed for her own tomb.

You’ll be delighted by Julie Heffernan’s naked naif, “Self Portrait as Infanta on Eggshells,” and Thomas Woodruff’s titillating “Swan Song” (over-ripe with sexual innuendo) of a bejeweled young swan leaving earth in a fantasy space ship; but also deeply saddened by the symbolic iconography of Lari Pittman’s “Transcendental and Needy,” which references the causes and casualties of AIDS.


Kay Sage, "Le Passage (The Passage),"
1956, o
il on canvas, 36 x 28".






Enrico d'Assia, Scene design for Act III, Scene
2 in "Turandot," ca.1965, gouache, water-
color, and graphite on paper, 6 1/2 x 11".







Julie Heffernan, "Self-Portrait as Infanta on
Eggshells
," 1999, oil on canvas, 68 1/2 x 49".