I have long had a penchant for somewhat obscure painters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The social upheaval of those times seems even more dramatic in many ways than what we are experiencing today, so the art from those times speaks to me both of that time and of our own. In addition, it seems that pressured, difficult times bring forth timeless human qualities in a vividness rarely found when life is “going easier.”
While working at the currently in transition Minnesota Museum of American Art, I came across a book about Arthur Davies that I ended up buying because there wasn’t much else out there about him. Among other things, he was a major player in bringing the works of Picasso, Kandinsky, Duchamp, and other European moderns into the U.S. during the 1913 Armory Show, an exhibit that changed the direction of the American art world.
The interesting thing is that, unlike the rest of the group he associated with, The Ashcan School, Arthur Davies did not attempt to paint the ragged, working class city life that had sprung up around him. His paintings were often decidedly otherworldly, as if, like in the image above, what was going on in the world was entirely divorced from what came through his paintbrush.
Indeed, his personal life was a series of relationships with women who were deliberately kept apart from each other. Painting models, patrons, confidants, and lovers — the line between these seemed to blur constantly for Davies, even as he was also able to, somehow, maintain two marriages with children for the final 25 years of his life with almost no one knowing. I can’t imagine the amount of energy he wasted keeping this elaborate set of lies together, but I think his paintings are not only beautiful, but instructive to all of us in terms of the ways in which the mind creates divisions, and then tries to maintain them.
The year Davies painted “Sleep Lies Perfect in Them,” 1908, was a pivot point in his artistic career. As a member of The Eight, his work was part of an exhibit that shook up the New York art scene at the time, and laid the ground for the Armory Show, and the entry of the avant garde a few years later.
In the meantime, Davies had settled in with his second wife, under an assumed name, and had already met Lizzie Bliss, who not only became a frequent purchaser of his art, but also became a trusted friend, art and business adviser, and possibly more. So, when you look at his life at the time of this painting, it’s become the mixture of success and secrecy that followed Davies to the grave.
Deception has many qualities, and among them, elaborate tales certainly is a hallmark feature. So, too, is a sense of being asleep to the truth of a situation, whether you just don’t know any better, or you deliberately ignore everything occurring around you. Davies definitely isn’t the first artist to create an alternate reality in his art; one could argue that all art is, to some degree or another, a series of alternate realities.
However, what’s so striking about the art of Arthur Davies is how little they give us a hint of either the turmoil of the times, or the psychological and actual turmoil of his personal life. Filled with young, beautiful women, perfected landscapes, and sensuous colors, Davies’ paintings seem almost completely unscathed, as if he was able to channel the paranoid, guilt ridden tenor of his life into a collection of visual dreamscapes beckoning us to come and rest in.
Maybe this is the most instructive thing about Davies’ artwork: when you live a life that fails to place truth at the center, you end up needing an elaborate place to rest in. This is why I both love what Arthur Davies created during his artistic life, and also find profoundly sad at the same time. The beauty that can come from deception can never be divorced from the real life consequences of the lies themselves. I do think some situations call for not telling the literal truth, such as has been seen during holocausts where people lie about the location of others to protect them from being murdered. However, when I look at most of the lying I have done in my own life, or have seen in others’ lives, I have to conclude that it’s usually selfish, and not beneficial to anyone involved.
So, the beauty of the image above is really that it can offer us both a respite from our struggles, and also a mirror to see the true nature of our struggles in.
Arthur Davies, “Sleep Lies Perfect in Them,” 1908.
Arthur Davies, “Elysian Fields” (thumbnail) – prior to 1928