Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Let's do anything that Picasso hasn't done

In my previous post on the portfolio Douze poètes, douze peintres, I reproduced a single etching with aquatint by Norman Rubington (1921-1991), an artist from New Haven, Connecticut, who spent the post-war years in Paris. Now, thanks to Ann May Greene, who inherited Rubington’s artistic estate, I know more about this interesting artist, and also have another 13 prints to share.

Norman Rubington, Man playing a flute
Etching, 1950, artist's proof

According to a note Rubington supplied for an exhibition of his etchings at the Palazzo Sormani in Milan in 1986, all of Norman Rubington’s etchings date from his Paris years in the 1950s. These Parisian years were vital to his artistic development. One French art critic, signing himself P. D., hailed Rubington’s solo show at Galerie 8 in 1950 as an astonishing success. Norman Rubington’s art, he wrote, was “burning with a new flame”.

Norman Rubington, Fisherman's daughter
Etching with aquatint, 1956, edition of 25

Very few of the etchings seem to have been formally editioned; Rubington could not afford the high cost of this, and simply pulled a few proofs for his own satisfaction. He may have been living a fairly hand-to-mouth existence on his G.I. loan, but he did not stint himself on the quality of his papers. His artist’s proofs are all on high-quality wove paper, mostly pur fil Johannot or Lana 1590 (both made from 100% linen or cotton), bought with his other materials from the Charbonnel art supplies shop opposite the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Norman Rubington taught himself the rudiments of etching from a manual. Under the expert guidance of the master printer Roger Lacourière, he quickly achieved a remarkable proficiency, using aquatint to eloquent effect, and mastering the technique the French call vernis mou, soft ground etching, in his witty portrayal of a boy with a bicycle. 28 etchings by Rubington are known to exist.

Norman Rubington, Boy with a bicycle
Softground etching, 1950s, artist's proof

The book Left Bank Right Bank: Paris and Parisians by Joseph A. Barry (Kimber & Co., 1952) has quite a bit about Norman Rubington in his Paris period. Barry writes: “When I first met Rubington, I found him in a room on the ground floor, directly behind a fish shop of Rue Henri Barbusse off Boulevard St. Michel. He had knocked out a wall, put in glass panes, a wood-burning stove, a box-bed, a dog, an easel, some canvases, and had begun to work. There were no toilet facilities and he had to get all his water from the fish shop.”

Norman Rubington, An artist in Paris
Etching, 1950s, artist's proof

At this time Rubington, living on his G.I. Veterans Administration checks, was a registered student at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, but he told Barry, “I couldn’t work there. It was too stifling.” He was thoroughly enjoying Paris, though. “When I came to Paris, it felt like coming home. I could breathe. People asked me what I did. I said I was an artist. They said, ‘Ah, an artist.’ Back home they said, ‘How do you live?’”

Norman Rubington, Sunflowers and dinosaur bones
Etching with aquatint, 1955, artist's proof

Rubington was painting at a furious rate (74 canvases in 1949), and exhibiting on equal terms with the best young artists of the day— Bernard Buffet, André Minaux, Roger Montané. A French critic of the group show of Jeunes Peintres Français at the Galerie J. Leuvrais c.1950 picked Rubington out as the best of the lot. Norman Rubington spoke to Joseph Barry about his theory of art. “It seems to me that the young artist is just overwhelmed by Picasso and how he has touched every area of painting. He says to himself, ‘Let’s do anything that Picasso hasn’t done.’ In that sense there is a reaction to Picasso. He has dominated art so long that the young artist from sheer exasperation wants to do just the opposite. That’s it. Picasso, Matisse, Braque—they’ve dominated so long that we have to paint anything that they haven’t done. Besides, we feel that their art is an art of sophistication. So we are trying to get away from sophistication. That brings us to primitive art again. But isn’t that the way it goes in the history of art? You have one school, then a reaction to it, and then another school, and so on. It’s all to the good.”

There is also some material on Rubington in James Campbell, Exiled in Paris (Scribner, 1995), as well as in the memoirs of Maurice Girodias, the publisher of the Olympia Press, and in John St. Jorre’s history of Olympia, The Good Ship Venus (Hutchinson, 1994). Rubington was a close friend of Girodias, and wrote books for Olympia under the pseudonym Akbar del Piombo.

Norman Rubington, Naked couple
Etching with aquatint, 1950s, artist's proof

As one might expect from a member of Girodias’s circle, there is a strong erotic component to Norman Rubington’s art, but just as strong is the religious element. Speaking to Joseph Barry about “the ancient primitives”, Rubington said, “They had a feeling for design that shows up in our abstract art. But they had something else. When you see a pagan god, you don’t believe in it, but you can appreciate the feeling for divinity that the artist had. Maybe we’re looking for something to believe in.”

Norman Rubington, Naked man
Etching with aquatint, 1951, artist's proof

In 1957, Rubington entered a Crucifixion in the exhibition Church Art Today held at Cathedral House, San Francisco. The First Prize for painting went to a work by Rodger Bolemey, but Norman Rubington’s painting was singled out by the critic Alfred Frankenstein in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1957. He wrote: “I find only one contribution which rises to a major issue in terms of today’s conceptions of space, movement, form, and coloristic resonance. That is the painting of the Crucifixion by Norman Rubington. . . . Here the dynamics of contemporary thought are really joined to a religious theme.”

Norman Rubington, Crucifixion with two weeping women
Etching with aquatint, c. 1951, artist's proof

Rubington’s Crucifixion was purchased by the Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Ann May Greene has sent me a copy of a letter from Norman Rubington dated Feb. 20, 1958, to the Very Reverend C. Julian Bartlett, the Dean of the cathedral, thanking him for a letter telling him of the painting’s success. Rubington writes, “I admit I did not expect such a fine reception of my crucifixion and am more than pleased that it is now in a cathedral. Perhaps I expected antagonism to my view rather than acceptance, for it is a personal, subjective interpretation of the crucifixion and as such is out of bounds of orthodox theological conceptions. I could not discuss such matters for my own knowledge is of a different kind, but perhaps the meaning for me is purely in the realm of human suffering....”

Norman Rubington, Crucifixion with male onlooker
Etching with aquatint, 1951, edition of 25

Of the thirteen new images posted here, two are of crucifixions—both very powerful. In one, a puzzled everyman is gazing up in bewilderment at the crucified Christ; in the other, Christ is gazing with curiosity at two distressed women, probably an ordinary mother comforting her daughter rather than two Biblical figures. In both, a connection is made between the everyday suffering of humanity and the Passion of Christ. Several other male figures seem to have something Christ-like about them (as, in fact, does the figure in Rubington’s etching for Douze poètes, douze peintres).

Norman Rubington, Salome
Etching, 1950, artist's proof

Rubington was evidently brooding on Biblical imagery at this time. In another print, what at first sight seems an amusing line etching of a naked woman sitting at a dining table turns out to be replete with religious imagery, with a chalice, a fish, and the head of John the Baptist being brought in on a platter.

Norman Rubington, Standing male nude
Etching with aquatint, 1951, artist's proof

But there is wit and joy in life in these etchings, too. The man playing the flute, the rather doleful bearded man (probably a self-portrait) clinging to a naked woman, and the etching crowded with little scenes from the artist’s daily life—all of these make the viewer smile, and are intended to.

Norman Rubington, Three female nudes
Etching with aquatint, 1950s, artist's proof

Rubington is not always completely successful in avoiding a debt to Picasso; his three standing nude women, for instance, inevitably recall Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. There are also elements of Surrealism in some of the etchings, including one of sunflowers growing through the bones of a dinosaur, and the human-animal hybrids of Les Acrobates de la Nuit.

Norman Rubington, Les acrobates de la nuit
Etching with aquatint, 1950s, edition of 20

I feel very privileged to handle these beautiful etchings, which are evidence of a rare talent. Norman Rubington was an artist of real distinction, and it is surprising he is not better known today. This may be partly because of his distrust of the art world, partly because he dissipated some of his artistic energy on books for Olympia, and experimental film-making, and partly no doubt because his career was split into two halves, the first in France and the second in America. Perhaps now is the time for Norman Rubington’s achievement as a printmaker to be fully recognized.

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