Objective drawing and painting from life in European art was once mostly confined to studies for large compositions based on biblical or mythological narratives. Somewhere in the 17th to 18th centuries, painting from life became an end in itself, reaching its apex in the 19th century when the genres of still life, landscape and the portrait came to dominate.
In about 1910, this world changed. Technological modernity had arrived, and modernist artists broke with tradition to create new art forms from scratch to express the complexities of modern life. Figurative artists could no longer feel comfortable working in front of the model unless it was a sketch to be used for the real work, the work done mainly from memory or the imagination.
Away from the centre of artistic production, however, things can look very different. Although Christopher Murphy was born in 1902 and lived his life in the 20th century, he seems to have lived as if it were still the 19th century. He stuck to the conventional genres of still life, portrait and landscape and used the conventional media of ink, charcoal, watercolor, oil and etching.
Apart from a period in the early 1920s when he was studying art in New York City, Murphy spent his entire life in Savannah. With some exceptions, his chosen subjects were the streets and buildings of Savannah, including the riverside.
From reading the wall texts, this exhibition appears to have been designed to educate us in Savannah’s history and what has since been erased. In one pen and ink drawing, “In the Name of Progress,” an historic building is being dismantled, brick by brick, by a few workmen. This drawing recalls the demolishing of this building to make way for a filling station in 1929.
Murphy’s town is a lyrical Savannah, long gone, in which the pedestrian is in control and people are seen walking freely about. And there is a peculiar connection relating to his several drawings done at the site of the Hermitage Plantation with its row houses of slave quarters in which the descendants of those slaves still lived until the 1930s.
Apparently, it was then that Henry Ford demolished the main house to recycle the bricks for his winter home in Richmond Hill. I wonder if Ford, the arch-fascist (Ford wrote The International Jew, a book which influenced Hitler in his race theories) thought it fitting that he should have a house built of slave labor and whether he ever met the descendants who lived in the old houses on the plantation.
Those slaves, we remember, made the Savannah grey bricks for McAlpin’s brick factory at the Hermitage, and these bricks were often used to create the buildings downtown. And then, many of those same buildings were torn down to make way for the unfettered path of its nemesis – the automobile..
And here, also, we see drawings of the City Market, demolished in 1954; and the Union Station Depot, destroyed in 1962, to make way for the I-16 exit ramp. The car hovers in the background narrative, a phantom in every image.
I have curatorial complaints. The wall texts tend to compete with and overpower the drawings, so that the viewer’s memory retains more dates and facts than enjoyment of the drawings. And it is a very uneven exhibition, not especially sustentative of his reputation as most of the paintings should have been left out, as oil painting does not appear to be his medium.
Murphy succeeds when his medium is black and white, pencil, ink or etching, and the scale is small. He is particularly good at rendering the humble subject and the overlooked corners of the city and its buildings, or the ships at the dock.
In the cityscape paintings, on the other hand, there is a timidity and uncertainty that is not present in the drawings. Objective drawing is a skill anyone can learn, so what makes a work merely competent and another transcend mere craftsmanship? It’s simply in the total immersion of the artist in his subject matter, forgetting himself in the process.
Failure in this respect seems to come from a loss of interest, or confidence on the part of the artist. An example of this in the exhibition is “Still Life with Conch Shell, Grapefruit and Bottle,” in which I can’t help feeling that Murphy lost interest half-way through; and the portraits suffer from a desire to satisfy the sitters’ idealized versions of themselves.
But, as there is always one example that doesn’t fit the analysis, there is one painting here that really works. In “Antioch Docking, 1925,” the looming hull of the ship, the Antioch, takes up most of the canvas from the right, dwarfing the two small boats filled with figures in the foreground.
On the left of the canvas, the side of the dock with its warehouses is visible, and the sails of a ship can just be seen behind the dock. The hull is a warm dark, and the sea on which it moves is a dull pink.
Alongside this work there are two studies of exactly the same composition, one in charcoal and the other in pen and ink with areas of watercolor wash. Even though this painting is good, it still cannot compete with the studies, which excel.
Murphy’s work may have seemed old-fashioned and anachronistic in the 20th century. Now, in light of where modernization and ‘progress’ have taken us, his work reminds us of the price in beauty and repose that we pay every day.
A world of ships and no planes. And a Savannah made for pedestrians and no cars, seems suddenly a bright and progressive vision.
Picturing Savannah, The art of Christopher Aristide Desbouillons Murphy. Where: Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences.When: Through June 1.