Thursday, August 18, 2011

Digging Daura: sketches

Above: Pierre Daura (Catalan-American, 1896-1976), Farm cart, ca. 1940, pen and ink on paper

This installment of the Digging Daura series comes from one of our summer interns, Paul Blakeslee, a senior at Sewanne:

I’ll be honest: cataloging Pierre Daura’s sketches for GMOA has been a startling experience. I like to think that I’m somewhat familiar with 20th-century art. It is, after all, my concentration as an art history major at Sewanee. Before showing up to my first day of work at GMOA, I had had a nagging suspicion that the usual “Gorky begat Hofman begat Pollock begat Rothko begat Motherwell” storyline couldn’t have been the only art being made in the 1940s and ‘50s, but honestly, it makes for a compelling narrative to study.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that my summer would be spent working with works from an artist of whom I had never heard a single word. In first looking through the drawings and paintings I would be cataloguing, I tried to imagine them being shown as slides alongside pieces by Joan MirĂ³ or Francis Picabia in a Sewanee seminar room.

As I started working through the objects, studying them for signs of damage and also, from sheer curiosity, trying to figure out Daura’s style, I ended up discovering something entirely different from what I expected. The thing about Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” or a Warhol soup can is its permanence and autonomy as an image. The works that are taught in art history classrooms exist in a state of semi-independence from their creators. Each work is at least as important as the person who made it. To a large extent, this seems to come from the artist’s efforts; the works that become famous are finished, polished, and intended to be viewed as art objects.

Pierre Daura’s sketches, on the other hand, are quick pen-and-ink or pencil sketches. Several were obviously drawn on whatever paper Daura had lying around the house. I flipped one piece over and found a picture his daughter had drawn on the back as a toddler. That moment, in particular, left me unsettled. I felt voyeuristic. Here I was, someone only recently introduced to Pierre Daura’s work, pawing through drawings he clearly never intended to display for an audience beyond his family. This wasn’t Art, that monolithic notion of human cultural achievement that I had learned about in the isolation of a college classroom in Tennessee; this was Pierre Daura drawing life as he encountered it, often probably for no other purpose than his own enjoyment.

My feelings of intrusion only intensified when I came across a sketchbook that Daura had filled with sketches of his daughter Martha as an infant. Almost every page bore a caption in imperfect English describing the Daura household from Martha’s point of view. Each picture also bore a date; most of the fifty-four sheets had been filled in the space of two weeks before Christmas of one year. A tangible sense of glee runs through the entire sketchbook.

A biography I read about Daura made it clear that he consciously withdrew from the European art world before World War Two to settle into family life in Lynchburg, Virginia. I live less than an hour from Lynchburg and, I’ll be honest, I think it’s kind of a boring place. I live in northern Virginia, within spitting distance of Washington, D.C., so I’ve always thought of the rest of Virginia as kind of a backwater. Pierre Daura’s landscapes of the countryside around Lynchburg, however, have changed my view. Everything he drew, from haystacks to headstones, is shot through with joy and contentment. Trying to title his landscapes is murderous, though; he often drew nearly identical scenes from nearly identical perspectives. I ended up nearly exhausting every combination of the words “Rockbridge Baths,” “cows,” “barn,” and “pasture” imaginable. However, it became clear as I saw more and more that the works had very little to do with the actual scene being drawn. Instead, the important aspect is the works’ almost transparent transmutation of Pierre Daura’s happiness into a landscape scene. After cataloging almost three hundred drawings, I feel confident in inferring that Pierre Daura had few, if any, regrets about uprooting his life and replanting it in rural Virginia.

My work at GMOA has given me a whole new perspective on art history in general. Studying one man’s unfiltered artistic output has been truly eye opening, and an experience that would have been impossible in a classroom setting.

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