Sunday, April 26, 2009

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, by Elizabeth Peyton (a fantasy)

The Poetry Scores annual Art Invitational has managed to attract many local artists here in St. Louis that could qualify as celebrities in our backwaters art scene, not that I give a hoot about art world celebrities or feel the need to attract any kind of artist to our shows other than the people we have been fortunate to work with in the past.

But it's my blog and I can fantasize if I wanna. So I am going to fantasize that for the Art Invitational to Les Murray's poem The Sydney Highrise Varations, we could attract a celebrity painter of celebrities: Elizabeth Peyton.

Which celebrity would she paint? The rules for the Invitational require that the piece be titled after a verbatim piece of language from the poem, so her subject would almost have to be name-checked in the poem. That leaves us with only one option - a celebrity from British history.

The Nineteenth Century. The Twentieth Century.
There were never any others. No centuries before these.
Dante was not hailed in his time as an Authentic
Fourteenth Century Voice. Nor did Cromwell thunder, After all,
in the bowels of Christ, this is the Seventeenth Century
"Cromwell" in this passage is Oliver Cromwell. He was a country gentleman (as The National Portrait Gallery in London tells us) who

became a soldier, statesman, and finally lord protector of Great Britain. As member of Parliament for Huntingdon and then Cambridge, he was an outspoken critic of King Charles I [...]. Cromwell's military skills and God-fearing tenacity were decisive factors in the Parliamentarian victory in the British civil wars, and he was prominent among those who first negotiated with, and then executed, the King in 1649. He achieved military success in Ireland in 1649—but carried out brutal massacres—and he led the New Model Army to victory against the Scots and Charles II in 1651. Emerging as a head of state when he and the army dissolved the “Rump” Parliament in 1653, Cromwell was created lord protector. He refused the crown in 1657, and died the following year.
Peyton, whose retrospective Live Forever is currently making its way around the world, paints from photographs. Since Cromwell died 168 years before the first known photograph was taken (in 1825), Peyton would have to work from another painting. I have posted Robert Walker's portrait of Cromwell (ca. 1649) from The National Portrait Gallery, London, for a reference point.

I don't really think we can entice Peyton to contribute work to an unknown arts org in St. Louis with a mission of translating poetry into other media, though she might appreciate our method. She has told an interviewer that a book of paintings she was working on was "inspired by a Shakespeare poem - one of those sonnets." That's a poetry score.

Peyton came to my attention, not through her traveling show Live Forever, but through an investigative book about the death of Kurt Cobain. Max Wallace and Ian Halperin report that when Cobain jumped the fence at the rehab center in Marina Del Rey just days before his death, he called his wife, Courtney Love, though she claimed not to know where he was and, in fact, hired a private investigator (Tom Grant) to find him.

Grant knows this from Love's phone records, which her lawyer, Rosemary Carroll, found in a backpack that Love left at her place. Love had noted a call from "Husband" less than an hour after he jumped the fence at Exodus giving a phone number where he could be reached with "Elizabeth". Wallace and Halperin note that

Elizabeth in the message almost certainly refers to the American painter Elizabeth Peyton, who spescializes in portraits of pop culture icons. Peyton, who was apparently staying in Los Angeles at the time of Kurt's disappearance, had become close friends with both Kurt and Courtney and later painted several striking portraits of Kurt after his death.
Indeed, her first show - which included paintings of the dead Cobain - was held in a room at The Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen. Cobain used to use Vicious' given name ("Simon Ritchie") as an alias when checking into hotels, and Love often has been accused of being on a Nancy Spungen trip.

No, I don't think we will entice Elizabeth Peyton to be in our show, but if we do, and if she comes, I'll be sure to ask her what she was doing on the evening of April 1, 1994!

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