As we enter the new millennium, I am sorry to report that one of the great artists of the Twentieth Century will not be joining us.
The death of Paul Cadmus in December at the age of 94 went appallingly unreported in the media. Cadmus had been in more Whitney Biennials than any other artist. Ignoring modernism, he nurtured a realist style based on the careful figure drawing which he practiced daily throughout his life. His paintings, produced at a market-insulting rate of two per year, were painstakingly executed in egg tempera and other media which could approximate tempera's linearity and color effects. He was a master, in the way we used to understand the word: someone with consummate control of technique and a vision for it to serve.
But he can only be seen as a conservative in retrospect. He rose to fame on a scandal surrounding a 1934 painting entitled
The Fleet's In!, which is on display at the Wolfsonian-FIU on Miami Beach. It depicts a group of sailors carousing on a sitting wall with loose women. A gay pickup seems to be occurring. It's a portrait of the Navy Man as Bacchante, and an irate Naval secretary ordered that it be pulled off of a WPA-sponsored exhibition. Anyone remembering the folderol surrounding Jesse Helms and the work of Robert Mapplethorpe will easily notice the parallels.
As a gay artist with a penchant for shock, it's tempting to see him as the Mapplethorpe of his time, but a distinction must be made. Disregarding the subject matter of both artists, it can be seen that Mapplethorpe was a technically expert, somewhat innovative photographer whose best moments resemble Edward Weston's. Meanwhile, Cadmus had synthesized the multi-figure composition of Mantegna, the satire of Brueghel, and the whole tradition of Renaissance figure drawing into a style that could address contemporary subject matter. The problem was tougher, and its solution lends Cadmus's work a timelessness which is harder to detect in Mapplethorpe's.
The modern conceit of not wanting to appear too literary or illustrational - an idea that would have baffled an artist before 1800 - was a non-issue for Cadmus. His grouped-figure paintings depict noisy collisions between nobility and depravity, and his scenarios needed actors - not real people, but types.
The Fleet's In! has a leering, rouged dandy with a perfect wave in his blonde hair, a crone wearing funereal purple with black gloves and boots tugging on a stalled, threadbare, poodle-ish mutt, beefy sailors, and young women in various states of plump health or lack thereof doing nothing virtuous.
A woman in the center of the image is playfully slapping the daylights out of a smiling sailor. Three women, sporting expressions of idiotic glee, flirtation, and feigned disinterest respectively, are blocked in their path by two virile lads, one who is in decided need of orthodontics. On the other side, The dandy is offering a cigarette to an officer-type, and they have locked eyes in a suggestive manner. Another sailor is about to be hoisted out of the officer's lap by a blonde who is presumably about to fall backwards over the dog's leash. The horizon line is set at waist-level, which lends visual weight to everyone's buttocks. One could take it as an insult to military glory, but on the other hand, one could without difficulty see it as a stylized version of actual events. For that matter, it's not all that different from what one might encounter on South Beach: people having lowbrow fun in an atmosphere of gluteal preponderance.
The painting seems to be loaded with a kind of loving flippancy, but in regards to art history, there is only love. The forms are hatched with tiny brushstrokes (Botticelli), using cross-contour to give the figures a massive, sculptural weight (Dürer). Abstract shapes which pull the viewer's eye through the composition are formed in the three-dimensional space by outstretched limbs (Raphael, especially his
Transfiguration of Christ in the Vatican). Thinly-veiled homoerotic sentiment (Caravaggio) and other varieties of rollicking action (Brueghel) are carried out by stylized but convincing characters (Fra Lippi) on a perspectival stage (Mantegna).
Now Cadmus is gone, and no one seems to be working so well in the same mode. Thus it is worth a pilgrimage to the Wolfsonian to see
The Fleet's In!, which was lent in support of the recent campaign by the South Beach AIDS Project with the blessing of the artist himself. It has been noted that the Twentieth Century didn't deserve to have such a gifted draftsman. Perhaps there will be a long-overdue reassessment of priorities, and the Twenty-First will make a better place for him, if only in spirit.
The Fleet's In! by Paul Cadmus is on display through February 16 at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach. Call (305) 535-2617 for more information.