Eldzier Cortor, who died last month, just shy of 100, painted this sexy, wry, and altogether mind-altering picture back in 1948. It hangs alongside two similarly ambitious Cortor paintings in the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.
So much is going on here it’s hard to know where to start. A cat, a nude, peeling wallpaper, trompe l’oeil letters, globby impasto, a mirror, a light bulb, a brass bed post, a collage of newspapers and color magazines, and a fairly righteous piece of furniture. (What is it, exactly? A vanity? A throne? A folded-up batmobile?)
Cortor was African-American. He was born in Richmond, Va., and moved to Chicago while still an infant. After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was employed by the Works Progress Administration in 1940 and “charged with depicting scenes of African-American social life in the slums of Chicago’s South Side.”
During the final two years of World War II, he traveled to the South Islands, off the coast of South Carolina, to study and paint the Gullah people — descendents of slaves (mainly from Sierra Leone) mixed with Native Americans and indentured servants. Cortor’s extended time with the Gullah, whose relative isolation from the mainland had preserved a distinctive Creole language, rice-based cuisine, and folk beliefs, mostly derived from West Africa, was formative. So was time spent looking at African sculpture in Chicago’s Field Museum.
“Negro identity” — to combine the parlance of yesteryear with a cant-word of today — was Cortor’s lifelong concern. He often funneled it through his pictorial treatment of African-American women, whose strength and beauty he sought to celebrate with such svelte and stylized visions as the one found here, reflected in a mirror.
But none of these ingredients, dutifully pointed out, quite accounts for the mad brilliance of this picture.
Spatially, it stretches your brain. Both the room’s flanking walls and the dresser, with its foreshortened marble arms and its thrown shadow, suggest the reassuring logic of spatial recession. But the textured left wall, the trompe l’oeil tricks at right, and the outbreaks of thick impasto on the dresser itself trip the eye at the picture’s surface.
In its charged but tight-lipped details (the teacup, the tattered red rug, the cigarette, the broken drawer handle, the hair clips), the scene can feel as silent and arresting as a Flemish Annunciation. But the palimpsest of papers on the back wall barks like a downtown billboard.
Such domestic collages were common enough in African-American interiors in the South: They did double duty as decoration and insulation.
This one — a mélange of newspaper front pages, fashion advertisements, medical diagrams, and sundry notices — resembles a Robert Rauschenberg transfer a decade before the fact, or a William Harnett tromp l’oeil (“Attention, Company!” is a good example) 70 years after. It features pointedly white-skinned magazine beauties, and a fair-haired thug holding a pistol that seems to point at the woman in the mirror.
Despite all the din, and all the pictorial fussiness, something silent and simple holds on. It’s the silence of cats, of burning cigarettes, of unopened letters, and of a beloved face turning into shadow.
Room No. V
By Eldzier Cortor. At Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.