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Art: Considered Statements

3 minute read

The two brothers from Philadelphia both went to the same schools through Harvard Law, but neither finished the way he began. George Biddle, the elder, started with A’s and ended with C’s.

Francis started with C’s and ended with A’s, plus a place on the Harvard Law Review. Francis became the Attorney General of the U.S. (1941-45), while George happily pursued the career he had wanted in the first place—to be an artist.

He traveled all over the U.S.. recording its infinitely varied landscapes. He organized the squads of artists that covered World War II. in peacetime built up a backlog of impressive portraits of his artist and writer friends. When the ab stractionists took over center stage, he tended to fade from public view. Last week Manhattan’s Cober Gallery offered a reminder that Biddle is as fresh an artist at 78 as at the peak of his fame.

His superb exhibition of drawings is divided into three parts. The largest consists of his portrait studies, ranging from the swift Oriental lines that concisely catch the profile of his friend, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, to a marvelously strong-featured portrait of Painter Marguerite Zorach, wife of Sculptor William Zorach, to an almost misty rendition of a pensive Van Wyck Brooks. Alongside these are his pictures in silverpoint—a painstaking technique that flourished in the 15th century and is rarely seen these days. With a silverpoint pen, Biddle works on paper treated with whiting to abrade the silver. He draws tiny line upon tiny line, and as the air oxidizes the deposited silver, the forms of birds or of flowers or of animal skulls emerge, faint and delicate as if sculpted in haze.

But these are not Biddle’s favorites, and good as they are, they do not have the impact of the third part of the show. This consists of Biddle’s Goyaesque drawings of the mummies buried in the crypt of a Capuchin church south of Messina in Sicily. Once upon a time, the Capuchins were famous for having brought back from the Holy Land sacred earth; and in the 17th century, their cemeteries were where the rich and the mighty were buried. The bodies are there today, preserved by some forgotten process, still wearing velvet britches and silver buckles. “Some times they look almost alive,” says Biddle. “Sometimes the decomposition is almost surrealist with Rembrandtesque light, and sometimes they look like giant insects with their mouths gaping open.” Ghoulish as they are, they become in Biddle’s hands enormously affecting—creatures caught in a no man’s land, having been rejected by life and not yet accepted by death.

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