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Robert Vickrey's 'Magic Lantern' shines in its realism

Robert Vickrey, Magic Lantern, (1967-1993), egg tempera on gesso panel, gift of the Collectors Circle.

© Robert Vickrey

Robert Vickrey, Magic Lantern, (1967-1993), egg tempera on gesso panel, gift of the Collectors Circle.

Halloween is a day for conjuring the mysteries of the unseen. Children may dress as superheroes or princesses as they trick-or-treat for candy, but those who pretend to be ghosts are closest to the day's darker history. • Centuries ago, before it became institutionalized as a family event, Halloween was the day between summer's end and fall's advent, believed to be the portal between the living and the dead. In Europe, people hollowed out turnips and lit them with candles to ward off the evil spirits thought to roam more freely on that one night. In America, gourds such as pumpkins were plentiful — and cast a larger light — so became more common. • On this Halloween, we look at a painting by American artist Robert Vickrey (b. 1926) in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Vickrey, a realist painter, has always explored the mysteries of everyday life. Though he creates recognizable scenes, they always seem more dreamlike than real. Unlike ghost stories, they aren't meant to frighten, only invite us to look beneath the surface of what we see.

The medium

Magic Lantern is worked in egg tempera, one of the most ancient paint mediums. It's made by mixing pigments with egg yolks and water. It's considered the most demanding kind of paint, which is why few artists used it after the 1500s, when oil paint was invented. Over the centuries, some artists have revived egg tempera; Andrew Wyeth, for example, used it. But it's uncommon because it is so fussy.

Unlike oil paint, it dries quickly and can only be applied in many thin layers that are built up. Oil can be thinned, too, but it can also be used for thick, opaque effects. And egg tempera can produce a luminous surface more subtle and velvety than thinly glazed oil paintings.

Vickrey is a modern master of egg tempera and is credited with new techniques in its use such as stippling, splattering, sponging and razor-scraping. All of them sound crude, but Vickrey uses them to produce a range of delicate and nuanced surfaces that look so smooth, they at first appear to be prints.

Realism in art

When art depicts objects or people as they appear to our eyes, we call it realism. But we don't always assume that what's before our eyes in a painting is a portrayal of something real. Botticelli's painting of Venus rising from the sea on a giant shell is a good example.

For almost 100 years, art discussions have mostly defined realism by what it isn't: abstraction. The abstract movement took hold in the 1940s and has never quite released its grip. And most artists who have become famous painting objectively — Andy Warhol and his soup cans — have used the style more as social commentary than artistic statement. The cans become containers for irony rather than tomato soup.

Vickrey has been associated with a movement called magic realism, similar to the literary genre of the same name. A sense of fantasy and wonder within an everyday context is typical of these paintings.

The painting

Magic Lantern is one of the finest examples of Vickrey's work. There are only three things in it: a young girl, a carved pumpkin and a large key ring hanging from the wall behind her. Yet it resonates with mystery. Most of that is generated by Vickrey's use of light against dark, as dramatic in its way as Caravaggio's moments of spiritual revelation painted in the late 16th century.

The source of light at first seems to come only from the jack-o-lantern the girl holds. Contrary to the thickness of pumpkin shells, this one seems translucent, and the glow it emits seems more like a caldron of molten fire than candle-lit.

Even so, there is another, unseen light source that projects her shadow on the wall in three ascending silhouettes. The highest one is at eye level with the key ring, one of those old-fashioned kinds we think associate with castles or dungeons. (You see that key ring a lot in Vickrey's paintings.)

The girl stares deeply into the pumpkin's carved face, which we can't see but know is there because of the light it throws upon the girl's face. She smiles slightly, and her expression is complicit and knowing, as if the two are in silent communion with each other. Or as if she's looking at her own reflection in a mirror.

Despite the potentially ominous set-up, the painting isn't disturbing. Nor does it raise existential questions. It requires no context or analysis. We get it immediately, even if part of getting it is acknowledging that not everything we apprehend is comprehensible. The girl sees something we do not. We don't have to know what that is. To her, it's special.

The artist

Robert Vickrey is a successful artist, though he is not really a famous one.

"The big wheel of art history in the second half of the 20th century played a cruel joke on many gifted people," said Philip Eliasoph, an art history professor and author of a monograph (a scholarly, definitive text) about the artist, in a recent telephone interview. Much of the art lauded today, he said, shows "nihilism, lack of skill and provides so little emotional nourishment. Most of it has to be explained."

Vickrey enjoyed a great deal of early critical recognition. He graduated from Yale University School of Art in 1950, where he clashed with Josef Albers, the influential professor and abstract painter, over Vickrey's persistence in painting realistically. In 1952, the Whitney Museum of American Art chose one of his paintings for its prestigious show (now the Whitney Biennial) and purchased it. Subsequently, his work entered the collections of other major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

By the early 1970s, his critical star had waned. In addition to his mise-en-scenes and landscapes, he had painted 78 portraits of notable people for the covers of Time magazine between 1957 and 1968, which probably made him seem too commercial for some art mavens.

Still, he has remained popular with collectors. His most enduring and recognizable motifs are nuns, specifically the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, always dressed in habits (now discontinued) with their swooping starched head coverings. Their faces are always hidden by them, and they are embodiments of the mysteriousness that permeates all of Vickrey's works.

He has been prolific, creating more than 1,500 paintings, although he doesn't work quickly. Note the dates for Magic Lantern. He worked on it, on and off, for 26 years before he deemed it finished. By that time, the subject, one of his daughters, was grown with her own children.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

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If you go

The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is located at 255 Beach Drive NE. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $16 adults, $14 seniors and $10 students 7 and older. (727) 896-2667 or fine-arts.org.

Robert Vickrey's 'Magic Lantern' shines in its realism 10/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 30, 2010 5:30am]

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