Gertrude Abercrombie

All the work in Gertrude Abercrombie’s retrospective—96 paintings done from 1932 to 1971—is intended to be autobiographical. The consistent use of similar symbols centering on a woman figure who appears in almost every painting successfully demonstrates a course of life.

Early self-portrait heads (1932–35) are in sunny, translucent, pastel colors. In White House (1935) the woman extends her arms from an open window toward the lawn where a white horse grazes, symbol of a good enchantment. In The Hill, 1938, the woman approaches the house but its doors and windows are shut; she wears a hat, symbol of containment, and two white horses graze out of her view. By 1939, Interior shows a brick structure behind a cracking, gray-walled facade, while a 1940 portrait head shows the woman in opaque purples, stiffly removing grapes from a bowl, symbol of life and sensuality. The portrait face has whitened out by 1961, and has the quality of a powdered silhouette. Now the figure, wall-eyed, with a pointed chin, adjusts long, black gloves with snaky fingers. A 1946 interior shows a painting on the wall whose pink house represents “the past” and whose black tree foreshadows “the present.” A leap to 1961 shows the woman blindfolded and nailed to a wall, but yet a group of works during 1966–69 seems to signify a cautious rebirth: the woman’s torso emerges from a seashell as a smaller figure curiously looks out through a hole in the shell.

Many of Abercrombie’s works deal with matters of sexuality and sexual conflict. Lady on a Couch (1942) has enormous, seductive eyes and reclines near an elaborately framed painting of a full moon and lush tree, while, in contrast, her feet are crossed, her hair is in a bun, her hands are folded over her genital area.

In another painting, unfortunately undated, the woman clasps a tree behind her as if frightened, although with gleaming eyes she looks toward a sensuous cat. Return to Living, 1941, shows the woman holding her ground in a strong wind, while the sensuous cat and a phallic wine bottle wait at her feet and a mechanical doll—part of her consciousness?—flies away in a parachute. In 1952, a facade of three doors—green, red, and gray—is backdrop to the sensuous cat, but by 1957, Abercrombie paints the same three doors again—without the cat.

Rarely do these paintings include human figures other than the artist, but when they do it is a decidedly unflattering image of a man. In Manhunt, 1941, a sly-eyed fellow walks down a cloud-darkened, lush, grass-flanked path, wearing one white glove and holding another, the symbol of purity defiled. In 1942, an empathetic scene shows one, lone, sad soul behind a lady’s empty chair, as a mocking blue bird dips into an open cup of water. The Courtship (1949) shows man and woman together. He, a masked bandit with rakish cap and casual pants rolled up beachstyle, points a finger at the woman, hands upraised. In Mysterious Stranger, 1953, the woman is in the house again, but down the garden path are no white horses, only a magician-devil figure holding a pointed cane and wearing black tights and a purple cape. A 1967 “relationship” shows a similar magician figure that now stands evil-eyed near a woman who levitates above a table.

This work is strikingly similar to the diary and autobiographical work currently being done by women. Size, subject matter, and material handling are intimate, private, and personal. The impelling concern is with the individual life rather than abstract formal matters. There is a tendency to seek self-catharsis, exposure, or revelation through the art. Revelations are simultaneous rather than climactic, as, for example, in Four Ladies (1950), where one woman introduces “sister” inhabitants of her mind. Abercrombie’s paintings within paintings show “where we thought we’d be” and “what actually happened,” while animals stand as silent companions. It is, then, curious that the work of Gertrude Abercrombie has almost invariably been written of as “Chicago lore” and “wonderful mystery,” but never apparently been looked at for itself.

C. L. Morrison