Henry Schwartz

Fuller Museum of Art

This 80-work retrospective of veteran Boston painter Henry Schwartz was the first comprehensive view of the artist’s forty-year career. Fantasies in oil, dating from 1951 to the present, combine absurdist wit with a poignant retrospective look at 19th- and 20th-century history. Music is the spiritual center of Schwartz’s expressionistic figurative art, which frequently takes the form of portraits of famous composers, writers, and philosophers. (Schwartz’s bespectacled self-portrait often appears in the company of his fantasy alter egos Mozart and Mahler.) Amply endowed nudes, cultural imagery, and references to Nazi Germany, also pervade the work. Wagner’s Das Rheingold, for example, lends its title to a 1974 collage containing Rheingold beer-can tops displayed in a ring around a smokestack, a symbol for Wagner’s posthumous complicity in the Holocaust.

Schwartz’s intricately structured oeuvre is informed by a deeply personal mythology. He spent years working in his father’s record shop at Revere Beach, and the allusion to classical music comes up again in literal images of records. The exhibition traces the development of Schwartz’s vision and imagery from Max Beckmann- and Pablo Picasso-inspired paintings in the early ’50s to vaporous, dreamy images of conductors in the ’60s, kaleidoscopic visions punctuated by voluptuous nude torsos in the ’70s, and lightly painted but dark meditations on culture in the ’80s. Titles are often as humorous as the iconography: Crucifixus Interruptus, 1978; Hey, I’m Great Too, 1980; Moussorgsky Chow Yoke, 1989.

Central to the exhibition is the monumental four-paneled 1979–80 painting of the music, literature, and artists who have inspired Schwartz, entitled A Ninth Symphony. The complex narrative blends life and death in a world of black humor. The figure nine looms large, signifying the curse of the ninth symphony (Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, and others could never write a tenth). Nine is also a homonym for nein, the German “no.” In the first apocalyptic canvas, a tiny nude Mahler peers up from a gray nothingness at an addressed letter with a James Joyce postage stamp on it, while Schwartz, dressed as a conductor, stands with a baton in his hand above a drawerful of colorful figure nines. In the next panel, meant to describe the Nazi years 1933–45, a saintlike image of Joyce’s wife, Nora, is combined with a scrawny nude body surrealistically placed in a dresser drawer to suggest nudes in a concentration camp. A second set of drawers holds a simulated-deutsche mark note displaying the number 999,999,999,999. Joyce’s face hangs above with a blind eye. In the third panel an airline pilot strafes a dove, and a self-portrait of the artist is surrounded by floating pairs of eyeglasses, one of which reflects the image of Virginia Woolf walking to her death. She walks not into the river by her house, however, but into the waters of Revere Beach, while a moonlike head of Proust looms on the horizon and figure nines wash up on shore. This monumental painting tempts us to Joycean free association over the past, in a Daliesque odyssey.

The left panel of the more recent diptych, Vienna Blood: Dirty Dancing on the Danube 1888–1938, 1988, is studded with voluptuous nude females who float above the heads of such notable Viennese as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Adolf Loos, Oskar Kokoschka, and Karl Kraus, who look out with motley painted faces. Below them dance smaller showgirls in top hats. Inside the Neue Secession building a nefarious small Hitler plays a violin. On the right panel, busts of Alban Berg, Johann Strauss, Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, and Sigmund Freud emerge from a dark ground. Smaller figures of Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Louis Krasner accompany showgirls from the Vienna State Opera. Schwartz’s portraits from the past always merge sex, death, and the unspeakable. With canned puns and humor, the author shows himself as a formidable storyteller.

Francine A. Koslow