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The Porch II

Not on view

The Porch II

Artist: Philip Guston (American, 1913 - 1980)

Date: 1947
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 62 1/2 x 43in. (158.8 x 109.2cm)
Framed: 66 x 47in. (167.6 x 119.4cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'Philip Guston' Stretcher: 'The Porch-Philip Guston 1947'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 48.26
Label Text
Immediately after World War II, when Philip Guston learned of the Holocaust and the extermination of six million people, he was outraged and saddened by such barbarism. He sought to communicate these feelings allegorically in his paintings.

In Porch No. 2, Guston creates a tense atmosphere through his use of clashing color and constrained space - all the painting's activity is claustrophobically crammed into the foreground. One figure sits in a chair behind a vertical post and in front of a horizontal one. The two posts create a cross, a strong symbol of sacrificial killing. Directly behind the seated figure is a strange parade of musicians. It is not a festive event, however. They march as if in a funeral, against the backdrop of barred windows and black background.

MEM

Text Entries

Philip Guston took a leave of absence from Washington University, in St. Louis, in the spring of 1947, bringing away with him an unfinished canvas—Porch No.2. During the two academic years Guston had spent in St. Louis, he had distanced himself from the softened, lyrical style that had won him recent acclaim and had addressed once again his old preoccupation with the tragic. As early as 1930 he had stated his social indignation in strong terms. His representations of the Ku Klux Klan, broadened to suggest the nefarious history of the Inquisition, were powerful indictments. Stylistically, they drew upon the monumental figures of de Chirico and the expressionistic mural style of Siqueiros. Memories of Renaissance murals were implicit in Guston’s use of architectural details flanking the composition of tormentors that recalled the many scenes of violent torture and punishment in Italian art history.

By 1947 Guston had deepened his painting culture and was posing difficult questions to himself. Immediately after World War II, the most grisly news from Europe arrived in St. Louis, making a profound impression. Guston recalled his conversations with other painters after they saw films of the concentration camps. “Much of our talk was about the holocaust and how to allegorize it.” He himself was searching “for the plastic condition, where the compressed forms and spaces themselves expressed my feeling about the holocaust.”(1) His oeuvre between 1945 and 1947 included many scenes of punishment by quartering, crucifixion, and flaying, echoing sources in both Northern and Southern Renaissance painting. These were augmented, in 1947, by a renewed interest in Picasso’s Cubism and in the work of the painter Max Beckmann, whom Guston had first encountered in a 1938 exhibition and whose catalog he had carefully studied. Beckmann interested Guston because of the way he “loaded” his compositions, filling up the picture plane with intricately woven objects and figures, leaving almost no free space. Picasso, on the other hand, had sharpened his interest in planar composition in which overlaps are eloquent. Guston produced several paintings in 1947 in which performers similar to Beckmann’s mummers were pressed into uneasy propinquity, and in which faces were rendered as tragic masks strongly resembling the emaciated faces and huge eye-sockets of the survivors of the camps.

By the time Guston painted Porch No. 2, a watershed painting, he had digested and refined his various sources. The stylized figures press up against the picture plane, which is divided into cruciform symbolism. A blackish ground pushes flat forms forward, and, as in Cubist compositions, the shapes dilate from a cluster of forms on a vertical axis. The performers, with drumsticks and horns, seem to be performing a tragic ritual. The feeling of violence is muted but unmistakable: the upside-down figure could be a tumbler, but, given the insistence of the cruciform shapes, suggests, rather, ancient punishments, perhaps even of St. Peter himself. The claustrophobic environment is explicitly stated in the barred window of the flat red building behind the five figures—a building that, as in earlier works, suggests theatrical flats, reminding the viewer of the allegorical rather than specific motifs in Guston’s work. The uneasiness of the painting is emphasized by the sharp, high colors—scarlets, oranges, and greens—breaking the continuity of the narrow planes and the horizontal-vertical rhythms, and by the explicitness of certain shapes, such as the shoe that presses its sole against the picture plane—an augur of paintings to come and a sinister reminder of the events that inspired Guston’s tragic vision.

 

 Notes

1. Dore Ashton, Yes, but . . . A Critical Study of Philip Guston (New York: The Viking Press, 1976), p. 74.

Copyright
Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).