Testimony to a Catholic Existentialist
When I was an undergraduate student I had the privilege of working as an assistant to the founder of this journal, Russell Kirk. One of my tasks was helping him to prepare for publication his supernatural thriller, Lord of the Hollow Dark. He was determined that the cover illustration should be by the artist Renée Radell. It was entitled The Tide and it depicted a series of fully clothed figures almost fully submerged in water. These individuals—including a businessman and what must be his wife—lie passively, being pulled by the tide, presumably to their destruction. Only a lone figure, his back to us, seems to reach out with a determined stroke to struggle against the force of the current.
If Dr. Kirk had wanted something sufficiently spooky and ominous for his cover image, he certainly succeeded. Being a youth of the callow sort, and only in the early stages of my passion for the visual arts, I was simply weirded out by the painting and imagined that the artist was of the morbid type. I thought little more of her despite Dr. Kirk’s paeans of praise for her genius as a painter.
How terribly wrong I was. Now here I am, nearly four decades later, holding a beautiful, oversized volume in my hands by the distinguished art critic Eleanor Heartney: Renée Radell: Web of Circumstance. The career this book traces—one spanning nearly seventy years—amounts to a signal achievement in American art. Radell stands with the best artists of her generation not only as a gifted figurative painter but also as one whose works plumb the philosophical, political, and spiritual dimensions of our age.
Born in 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, she and her family were forced to move a few years later to Detroit where her father sought gainful employment. Her talent as a visual artist became apparent early on: some of her drawings in response to World War II were published in the Detroit News. She won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York but lacked the financial wherewithal to support living expenses in the city and so instead she attended the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts.
Raised in the Catholic faith, Radell and her sculptor-professor husband Lloyd were actively engaged with some of the major philosophical thinkers of mid-century, including the French Neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain. (An early painting of hers is named Existence and the Existent, after a book by Maritain.) She and Lloyd raised five children together and she painted them frequently with the sort of tenderness that reminds one of painters like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot.
But the domestic world was only one of her subjects: she has been equally interested in the larger cultural and spiritual questions.
Radell’s influences were many and varied, and came from both Europe and America. She has been a figurative artist from the outset. One might call her a realist in certain respects, but her art has never been interested in photographic reproduction of the visible world. There has always been a painterly aspect to her work, an effortless absorption of the ways that modern movements like expressionism use color, figurative distortions, and brushwork to evoke emotional responses and insights into the world she renders.
Heartney rightly points out that a central vein of her oeuvre lies within the twentieth-century tradition of American social realism and political commentary running from artists like Ben Shahn, Isobel Bishop, and Raphael Soyer to later masters like Leon Golub and Leonard Baskin. Web of Circumstance makes this aspect of her career easy to follow because it is not organized chronologically but in terms of theme and subject matter.
Take, for example, the large painting entitled Political Fertility Rite in the section on “Political Commentaries.” At the center of a larger political banquet, a charismatic figure (reminiscent of GOP Presidential candidate George Romney but with hair like Donald Trump) glad-hands his wealthy patrons, their hands reaching out and meeting in a melee at the painting’s center. This quintessential political scene is given added piquancy by its title: what’s going on here amounts to something quasi-religious, as if a savior is receiving his own. These figures are complacent but also seemingly unaware of the way they are being used and abused—shades of the same insight visible in that early work, The Tide.
To my eye, however, Radell’s social commentary bites more deeply the less obvious and topical it is. A piece like Trial of Innocence, which shows a large doll on the ground surrounded by a number of symbolic elements such as a teapot, Chinese figurines, a collection of robed figures resembling a Supreme Court group photo, and the artist’s own easel, makes for something more suggestive and layered.
The next section is labeled “Allegorical Works” and the term makes a certain amount of sense. But it is also misleading. Radell’s paintings in this mode are not allegorical in the strict sense: the symbols and figures in them don’t stand in some simple one-to-one relationship to various abstractions. They are more dreamlike and associational than that. Carousel presents us with a group of female nudes riding on wooden horses. Some have elaborate hats while others wear masks like something from a Venetian Renaissance ball. Heartney says, rather blandly, “their lack of inhibitions and their individuality signal an openness to life’s infinite possibilities.” I see a far more sinister suggestion: female sexuality paraded in front of us for voyeuristic consumption. The snarling horse at the center of the painting hints at this darker interpretation.
In fact, Heartney fails to say much about her subject beyond the platitudinous. Though she has won laurels as an art critic, it seems that in this instance she is merely phoning it in. A typical milquetoast sentence (and there are many) reads: “What holds all these works together is a dedication to the exploration of the deeper truths of life.” When she includes a particularly incisive quote from another critic the contrast is so sharp that one notices immediately. Take this tidbit from E. P. Richardson, who said of Radell’s work as early as 1959: “her approach has become steadily more subjective and intense.… Her color has deepened, tone grown more powerful, the line tense, the mood sober and brooding.”
Even if the accompanying text fails to do justice to the work, this volume, with its gorgeously reproduced color plates, constitutes a testimony worth having. Indeed, at her best Radell moves beyond didactic allegory to something that I can only call a sort of Catholic existentialism. Like the great twentieth-century Catholic painter Georges Rouault, Radell presents us with the lost and the lonely, adrift on the tide, but within a world where hints of grace might be glimpsed. In such an approach, the justice that shows us the fallen world is tempered by the merciful humanity with which the figures are limned. At times it’s hard not to see the same spirit of the French Catholic artist: Rouault’s clowns, prostitutes, and judges seem paralleled by Radell’s businessmen, exotic dancers, and politicians.
In this regard her best critic remains Russell Kirk, who was also probably a direct influence on Radell’s art. Kirk noticed the affinity between Radell’s depictions of modern ennui and anomie and the poetry of T. S. Eliot. In his essay on Radell, Kirk quotes Eliot: “We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But an essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, the horror, and the glory.”
In a political climate dominated by shallow nationalism, coarsened public discourse, and the cult of the strongman, Radell’s prophetic art not only provides a critical counterbalance, but the hope inherent in a humbler, more humane, and spiritually grounded vision.
Gregory Wolfe is the founder and editor of Image. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at Seattle University. He edits a literary imprint, Slant Books, through Wipf & Stock Publishers. Wolfe served as the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program. His books include Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and, most recently, The Operation of Grace.
Posted: March 19, 2017
Small Towns Can Be Big Stages