The Sabbath of History: William Congdon — Meditations on Holy Week
Through Sept. 16, 2012. Knights of Columbus Museum, 1 State Street, New Haven, (203) 752-4535, kofc.org
Kurt Vonnegut's life was forever changed by his experience in World War II when he witnessed the Dresden firebombing that immolated thousands of civilians. Around the same time, William Congdon (1912-1998) witnessed the stark reality of the Holocaust at the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, noting, "It was an insane asylum in reverse. The insanity had been imposed upon the normal by the insane."
In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut created a fictional alter ego, Billy Pilgrim, through which to process his trauma. Congdon had no such luxury; he was a real-life Billy Pilgrim, a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Field Service who never fully recovered from the shock of those weeks among the living corpses of Bergen-Belsen. Instead of a pen, Congdon picked up a paint brush after the war. Within a decade, he entered the pantheon of postwar figures shaking up the New York art world, garnering a Life magazine profile and being compared to James Dean by Vogue.
You might say that Bergen-Belsen was Congdon's road to Damascus. Before the war, he'd earned a literature degree from Yale, studied at Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts and opened a sculpture studio in Lakeville, Conn. But his war experience sent him on a lifelong quest, through his art, for spiritual grace and, eventually, conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Given the religious intensity of his art, it's fitting that a major retrospective of Congdon's work, "The Sabbath of History," is now installed at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven. Pieces of his pilgrimage (letters, sketches, tools, notebooks) are seamlessly interwoven by curator Daniel Mason with a large selection of the artist's paintings. Perhaps because of preconceived notions about the Catholic Church — elevated in recent years by various scandals — many art lovers may assume "The Sabbath of History" holds limited appeal. Please don't make this mistake. Not only is "The Sabbath of History" the finest exhibit of American modernism in the state this year, Congdon himself was one of the more fascinating members of a circle of American artists that included Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and Still.
The first gallery of "The Sabbath of History," covering the "early years" (1945-49), contains the exhibit's most heart-wrenching material, among which are letters Congdon wrote his parents from Bergen-Belsen (signing off with "Love, Billy") and some crayon sketches of the setting. The material is expertly arranged to give a palpable sense of the artist's torment and the complete break it caused in his art. By 1948, when he was living in a tenement flat off the Bowery, his early realistic sketches had turned into an obliteration of form in works like "New York City (Explosion)" and "Bowery (Dark)," which anticipate urban artists like Haring and Basquiat — by 40 years!
Congdon noted, with some understatement, "There was much resentment in my painting at this time." Indeed, in "Destroyed City" (1949) one has the sense that the artist had become a furnace, smoldering with such ferocity it's a wonder he didn't explode. Although he admitted to being "attracted to the freedom of the Action Painters" like Pollock and Rothko, Congdon was really a man apart. And soon enough, after completing "Black City on Gold River" (1949), he truly was — relocating to Italy and never returning to America.
Italy lightened Congdon's palette and muted his looming sense of doom. Here, he really hit his stride, finding the style from which he seldom wavered. He depicts Rome'sColiseum, for example, as a black circle surrounded by oval swirls, and when one considers the fact (as Congdon did) that the Coliseum was where, for entertainment, early Christians were fed to lions, the theme darkens: history as black hole.
A generous sampling of Congdon's work over the next 50 years rounds out "The Sabbath of History." Most poignant are the series of paintings of the Crucifixion, or "Crocefisso," such as the magnificent "Crocefisso No. 9" (1961); one can feel the contortions of dead weight nailed upon the cross, how the body and the wood melt into one another. This is in keeping with Congdon's claim that his paintings "come and save me like angels."
His pilgrimage took him to the four corners of the earth and ended at a Benedictine monastery near Milan, where he died and was buried in 1998, and from which many of the paintings in "The Sabbath of History" were borrowed.
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