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Art: The Enigmas of the Exile

5 minute read
Robert Hughes

A forgotten American painter is rediscovered in New York

In November 1936, an American artist in New York scrawled a note to a friend in Paris. “This evening,” it announced with bitter formality, “I leave for the great beyond.” He posted it, went to his room and swallowed an overdose of veronal. Thus, at the age of 55, died Patrick Henry Bruce, aesthete, Virginia dandy, misfit and expatriate, a direct descendant of Patrick Henry and one of the most interesting minor painters of early modernism. In Paris, where he lived for 30 years, Bruce had helped Matisse set up his art school. He was a friend of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, admired by Duchamp and the Steins. As a painter, he had the kind of precise, narcissistic talent—Alfred Stieglitz is said to have compared it to “a cold kiss”—that ensures unpopularity.

Vain, imperious, shy, a social throwback to the Old South, drowning like some failed Pleistocene fish in the swirling currents of democracy, Patrick Henry Bruce cannot have been an easy man to know. He refused to discuss his work, except with like-minded people; since he was sure that there was nobody like him in the art world, not one firsthand remark about his methods or aims has survived. In fits of depression, he destroyed part of his output; much of what he did not burn has been lost, and about half of his surviving late work was altered by a “restorer” in the mid-1960s. In almost every way, Bruce wrote and stamped his own ticket to oblivion.

Resurrecting the man and his oeuvre through the thin and scattered relics he left, could not have been an easy job. But it has resulted in a fascinating exhibition, ‘Patrick Henry Bruce: American Modernist,” now finishing its run at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and due to open at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond on Nov. 27. It is the fruit of several years’ research by Art Historians William Agee, director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and Barbara Rose. As an American painter, Agee claims in his excellent catalogue, Bruce “ranks with or surpasses the best of his generation and far outdistances a hundred artists whose reputations maintain secure places in our histories.” Whether or not this is strictly true, we are still left with a very considerable painter, seen whole— or almost whole— for the first time.

“Roi ne puis, prince ne daigne. Rohan suis”— “King I cannot be, to be prince I disdain. I am Rohan.” This sublimely arrogant ancien régime motto suggests Bruce’s transactions with the artists he knew in Paris. The main influences on him were Cézanne and, above all, Matisse (Bruce once lent Picasso money, but refused to take his art seriously: it was too showy and volatile for him.) His homages to Matisse never ended. Matisse’s insistence on achieving structure through local color contrast lies behind Bruce’s post-cubist compositions of 1916, in which he tried, not altogether successfully, to fuse color with the implied movement of sculpture and the actual movements of jazz dance.

The years of Bruce’s originality began after 1917. He was the only significant American painter to spend the war in Paris, and he shared the desire that permeated French culture for a new classicism — in music, dance and writing, as well as in art— after the horrors of the trenches. An art based on fragmentation, double-reading and dissociation, as cubism had been, did not suit the mood of a society anxious to regroup itself after a shattering war. Though a modernist to the fingertips, Bruce himself could not endure the idea of a fundamental break with the ambitions of classical art: harmony, wholeness, an unruptured continuity of craft. He distrusted the ambiguities of cubism. He adored the monumentally of Cézanne, but cubism had been reared on Cézanne’s doubts. Eventually, Bruce’s search for a stable format focused on one motif— spare and subtly varied: a tabletop, tilted toward the eye in axonometric projection, as clear-looking as an engineer’s drawing and dotted with odd, highly formalized objects. These, as a rule were either drafting implements or offcuts of moldings and scroll-sawed wood that Bruce, who rarely sold a painting and eked out a living by dealing in old furniture, picked up on his rounds of restorers’ workshops in Paris. They make up an enigmatic landscape whose features subtly alter, a familiar and yet bafflingly secret topography. In fact, Bruce’s still lifes have a more than passing resemblance to the dream architecture in Giorgio de Chirico’s early “metaphysical” streetscapes. But Bruce’s more gelid and formal temperament did not, or perhaps could not allow itself the poetic fullness of De Chirico. Bruce’s mature still lifes do not look very adventurous; and although Barbara Rose intends to praise by comparing him to that most boring of all literary figures the Master of the Glass Bead Game in Hermann Hesse’s novel Magister Ludi one cannot help feeling that Bruce’s range was cramped as much by prissiness as by exalted refinement. Yet at its best, as in Peinture/Nature Morte, 1921-22, Bruce’s speculative and precise vision carries an extraordinary conviction. Perhaps no American artist until Jasper Johns would live so devotedly, or with such civilized uncertainty, within the rules of his own intellectual game. That in itself was an achievement, even if it did not become the large moral example that Agee and Rose, in their zeal for posthumous justice now claim it to be. —Robert Hughes

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