At the Mattatuck, Henry Golden Dearth Goes Wonderfully Weird

THE DAILY PIC: An obscure American revels in modern art's medieval roots.


THE DAILY PIC (#1468): I really don’t know any greater thrill than heading into a museum’s permanent collection, no matter how small or obscure. In fact, the more obscure the better, since that’s where surprises lurk. The Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT, delivered the goods last weekend. I got to see this wonderful still life by an artist I hadn’t ever heard of: Henry Golden Dearth. The painting, from around 1915, doesn’t sit tidily in any of art history’s normal pigeonholes, although overall it has hints of van Gogh and the Nabis, while its flowers have a big dose of Adolphe Monticelli, a hero of van Gogh and Cezanne and a great art-star in his day. I think the weird picture that Dearth has stuck behind the other objects in his still life, at right, gives us some insight into what’s going on: It strikes me as some kind of medieval painting (he collected such things) and reminds me that modern art, in those early days, still had a link to the Victorians’ fascination with the Middle Ages. I think we tend to forget that modernism has some Pre-Raphaelite DNA. For Dearth, however, that’s all about the crude power of Beowulf rather than the delicacy of the Gothic.

[Correction/Addendum, Jan. 14, 2016: My sister, the Middle Eastern archaeologist Hilary Gopnik, smartly pointed out that the picture leaning up in the back of Dearth’s still life is almost certainly Persian, not medieval, given its turbans, round shields, etc  – which had actually been my first impression, before research told me that Dearth was a collector of medieval art. (Doh!) So, as Roseanne Roseannadanna would have said … “never mind”. On the other hand … I think even Dearth’s Persian reference points to an exoticizing tendency in early Modernism that conflated all kinds of otherness into one modern vision. (How do you spell “saving the phenomena”?)]

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