How's Bayou? If Scarlett met Clementine
Just what might Scarlett O'Hara -- or Bette Davis, as impetuous Southern Belle Julie Marsden in "Jezebel" -- have done with a Clementine Hunter quilt?
Two recent events sponsored by the Friends of the Cabildo, support group for the complex of Louisiana State Museum buildings in the French Quarter, led me to that question.
An insightful exploration of the naïveté -- or lack thereof -- of Louisiana's premiere naive painter, given by LSM curator of visual arts Tony Lewis as part of the museum's monthly Hidden Treasures series, examined seldom-seen examples of Clementine works (held in the museum's fortress-like Chartres Street vault) vis-a-vis 20th-century art movements.
And LSM historian Joyce Miller, in her "2nd Thursdays" series lecture "Southern Fried Hollywood," held in the intimate new third-floor performance space at the Old U.S. Mint, brought Harriet Beecher Stowe up close and uncomfortable with Vivian Leigh and Bette Davis as Miller mingled serious social history with amusing Southern-fried anecdotes, tracking the rise and fall -- and rise again -- of the Old South mystique in American films from the end of the 19th century to Django.
Clementine the Modernist
Clementine Hunter (née Clemence Rubin, in 1886), spent most of her 100 years on Melrose Plantation, Miss Cammie Henry's artistic and literary retreat on the Cane River near Natchitoches. Known for her feisty nature, Clementine, if she didn't want to be bothered, would point down the road when tourists asked where they could find the Cane River Grandma Moses.
Everyone has a story on just how she began painting, but it all focuses on New Orleans artist Alberta Kinsey leaving behind some paints and brushes, the intervention of flaneur and Francophile Francois Mignon, and the artist's innate, unvarnished talent.
But there's a new theory on the block these days. There's no denying Clementine's talent, her sense of design and color, or unique rendition of space, Tony Lewis contends. But although she was initially "self-taught," her world seems on closer look to have expanded under the tutelage of the intellectual Mignon (who hailed from upstate New York and assumed his new French name only when he landed on Cane River) and a local boy, James Register, who returned to the area after a university education in Oklahoma, searching for somewhere to put his book learnin' to work.
As Lewis suggests: All of a sudden, there was Clementine, a talented, if relatively blank, palette on which Register could impress his knowledge of the arts and, in a Pygmalion manner (I would suggest), show Clementine how to paint the rain in Spain with a little more panache.
In the 1940s and '50s, Lewis hypothesizes, those free-floating colorful shapes that appear in some of Clementine's paintings and quilts might be echoes of the appliqués and paper cutouts for which French master Henri Matisse -- with whom both Mignon and Register would have been familiar -- was famous. Likewise the artist's lyrical stokes of color that suggest the rainbow Cubism of Gallic painters Robert and Sonia Delaunay.
On this side of the Atlantic, Adolph Gottlieb began experimenting in 1941 with pictograms, based on primitive art and markings, arranged in grid-like patterns. Enter Clementine's rather sophisticated abstractions, which ironically are similar to Gottlieb's recycling of "primitive" images, bringing the artistic indebtedness full circle.
It was an "Ah, ha!" moment. Why hadn't I thought of all this? When explained this way, it all seems so obvious.
The answer may be that Clementine did not persist in these more intellectual artistic experiments. She claimed that painting this way made her head hurt.
The works with which most of her admirers are familiar are more typical, yet still beautifully rendered, scenes of plantation life -- the happy imagery that historian Joyce Miller detects as far back as 1832 in the birth of the Southern belle in Southern literature as an antidote to that pesky Abolitionism creeping down from up North.
The Lure of the Ole Plantation
Blame Sir Walter Scott if you will. His romantic recreation of olde Scotland -- music publishers touted a Ravenswood Waltz that graced Louisiana rosewood square pianos, and the decrepit mansion in 2012's "Beautiful Creatures," was the old Ravenswood place -- became the template for Southern chivalry and demeanor that the Southern belle epitomized.
By 1852, with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's epic "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the mansion's facade was beginning to show cracks. In it's year of publication, it sold more copies than the Bible; and later, President Lincoln reportedly referred to the author as "that little lady who made this big war."
Oddly, as Miller chronicled, after the Civil War, some Northerners joined Southerners in viewing the Old South as something of a Golden Age; and the heroic resolution of conflict appeared in smarmy novels of the dashing Northern soldier subduing the feisty Southern belle.
This had the unfortunate effect of elevating moonlight and magnolias once again to the level that Febreze enjoys these days as the cover-up of all things unpleasant.
D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation, the first film shown at the White House (for Woodrow Wilson, who described the film as "history written in lightning") took it one step further, pimping for folks on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line to come together to preserve their Aryan heritage.
I first watched Jezebel in the parlor at Madewood in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav, when, like Miss Julie, I'd fled New Orleans for the relative safety of the plantation upriver. This 1938 plum, given to Bette Davis as compensation for losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara, wasn't nearly as exciting as Gone with the Wind, which opened the following year; but it seemed more deliberately reprobate, an awkwardly innocent prelude to such anti-magnolia lash-fest films as 1976's Mandingo.
According to Miller, Quentin Tarantino was an admirer of that film; and in Django Unchained his goal was to "take a slave narrative and blow it up to epic proportions -- making it operatic." All I know is that Clementine would have had lots to say about how Lorenzo di Caprio treats folks in the film, and how Tarantino takes it all in stride.
Clementine, no doubt, would have fared better at Tara, but things still might have gotten a l'il techy around the house. The outspoken painter would have had no use for Mammy and all that eye-rollin' -- and she certainly knew lots about birthin' children, which would have spoiled Prissy's game.
But a few Clementine quilts around Tara after the Civil War might have come in handy. Scarlett could have left those velvet drapes right where they were. Why, that big quilt with all those wavy colors would make the most delicious skirt -- and, let's see, if we cut the big Melrose applique out of the quilt in the library, it'll be perfect for the bodice, with that cute little African House covering that ugly old buckle.
And over at Jezebel's Halcyon Plantation, Miss Julie might have ripped that quilt down and used it to cover her shoulders against the evening chill as, in a cringe-inducing scene, she frantically leads the slaves in whirling-dervish-style as they rejoice in the happy plantation life.
Such questions won't be answered at future Friends of the Cabildo events, but fascinating topics await your perusal at www.friendsofthecabildo.org, along with specific information about each presentation. I guarantee you'll come away with intriguing new insights into the art around you, and a thirst for more.
Friends of the Cabildo upcoming events:
- A presentation of 1970 Jazz Fest movies, April 25 at the Old U.S. Mint. With the Band-In-A-Pocket Jazz Trio. 7:00 p.m. Admission: $10 ($7.50, Friends members)
- Hidden Treasures: Commemorative Arts Edition. Curator of decorative arts Katie Burlison will guide attendees through the museum's collection of awards medals and tokens of appreciation from important events in Louisiana history. May 7th and 9th at the Old U.S Mint, 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. Each evening. Admission: $20 ($15 for Friends members)
- Information/registration: Kaydee Nenninger at 504-523-3939.
How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.