New York

Raoul Dufy

Holly Solomon Gallery

According to Raoul Dufy, all the world’s a pattern and we are merely players in a long-running hit. Repetition of a few key elements rules both narrative and scene. The use of certain pictorial devices to frame a view, as if in quotation marks, pushes the stage analogy and the sense of recycled material. Curtains in Le Prado Tiziano, 1949, and Gastronomie, 1950, create prosceniums, and balconies turn street scenes depicted on upholstered chairs into theater. Spectacle is almost always the subject matter, be it concerts, military parades, races, official receptions, circuses, or bullfights. The cycle of “Amphitrite” works arrange discontinuous background events into a horseshoe amphitheater. Atelier aux trois chevalets, 1946, then, is a central work, for it reveals the painter’s studio as backstage, the prop room. Stacked easels, a supremely conventional torso, affect a cardboardlike thinness: distinctions among back, middle, and foreground disappear like the pleats in an overextended accordion. As in all Dufy’s paintings, color and line operate in reciprocal ignorance so that the depth proposed by one is contradicted by the other. No wonder Warner Brothers cartoons, with their need for an ultimate combination of theater and flatness, seem to have lifted their technique from Dufy, and from this canvas in particular.

Often a play of manners is enacted, at a restaurant or the races, but generally Dufy produces a revival of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Into inhospitable industrial and urbanized ambience, into the most inappropriate rural scene, “beauty” is introduced over and over again, like an ingenue who keeps trying to break into stardom under different names. Always you can see right through her—she is the nymph, the goddess. Dufy’s aim is to reclaim for the contemporary not only the fact of beauty but the concept of it, a concept for which the nude figure becomes a sort of glyph. It’s no more strange, he would claim, to find nymphs in a threshing scene (Dépiquage a Ia nymphe, 1946) than on a vase. One is as surreally commonplace as the other. Dufy’s series of dépiquage works defy the law of the prosaic: no setting is inappropriate for the starlet; she may roost on chair, vase, wallpaper, rug, or dress, and Dufy sees to it that she does all of these. Nor is any disguise for beauty inappropriate. If the main event isn’t literally Venus, it is some other center-stage element made miraculous; onlookers have formed a circle around it, diminishing themselves to mere rank and file.

Moreover, these works always include a naissance of a kind. The brilliant foregrounding of the steamer in Le Cargo Noir (II), 1948, and the bull in Bullfight, 1948 (not shown here), is achieved by scratching their outlines on a patch of black, a color about which Dufy had this to say: “The sun at its zenith is black . . . for me black dominates. One must begin with black and attempt a transposition.” This is the saga of creation ex nihilo. These two works give extreme examples of Dufy’s inversion of darks and lights. Typically, in Paysage aux oliviers, 1922–23, a wheeled cart is divided between negative and positive space, half blue, half black, and the line that defines it shifts from black on the blue to white on the black. All things are in transit, remaking themselves.

Dufy’s quest for little else besides beauty, his perpetual alertness for the moment when he has succeeded, with relief, in seeing contemporary “ugliness” as beautiful (which is to say as classical) may keep him from the greatest achievement but it gives his work extraordinary charm, possibly because the restlessness of the search keeps him light on his feet. With so much territory to cover, he is forced to be fast. While Matisse aerates painting, Dufy codifies his brevity into a veritable shorthand and uses it to pack in as much information as possible. He shoves almost photographically complete detail into his canvases without cluttering them and thereby detracting from any possible linguistic message—from product identification, if you will. No point of the landscape seems missing from Paysage aux oliviers, which consists almost exclusively of simple circles and curves. Elsewhere ciphers are crowds, and ciphers with lines through them are hatted crowds. This accomplished economy no doubt explains why the Dufy look dominates commercial illustrations of the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s—ads, travel posters, fabric prints.

The decorative artists of the last decade, for whom Dufy is being posited as a source through this exhibition, probably learned more from the ads than from Dufy. The slippage of image from its moorings in the work of say, Kim MacCannel, taken to extremes of layering by others, was probably picked up from printed media (as indeed Dufy himself may have learned from his own forays into that area). But Dufy is appropriate as a source, not just for this slippage and for his pangraphic devotion to the applied as well as the fine arts. Think of the theatrical aspect of much decorative work—think of Robert Kushner’s Aida, 1979, MacConnel’s sporty “Cut-ups,” 1980, and Ned Smyth’s and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s altars, performance-referred all. Dufy’s the one all right.

Jeanne Silverthorne