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Review: Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter

Works by the playwright at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

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I was not going to review this show. Many celebrity art shows turn out to be embarrassing spectacles — evidence that talent doesn't always carry over into different media. When I learned that a show of Tennessee Williams' paintings was opening at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, I tried to avoid it. Then I stumbled into it by accident, and while some of these works do indeed border on embarrassing, they also possess a poignant eloquence that reflects the playwright's troubled yet transcendent psyche. Some works suggest the daubs of a decadent yet oddly innocent child, but up close many also radiate an inexplicable mysticism poised somewhere between William Blake and Sister Gertrude Morgan.

She Sang Beyond the Genius of the Sea is a view of a disheveled siren emerging on a beach, waving her trident as two guys slog toward the briny depths beyond the far horizon. Fleshy yet subtly evanescent, such scenes distill Williams' narrative proclivities into messy, symbolic daydreams where men and women appear roiled by the whispers of their inner angels and demons. As a playwright, he was a master of human pathos, but as a painter he was a folk artist adrift in a sea of social intrigue, as we see in his Sulla Terrazza della Signora Stone painting of an aging actress and a Roman gigolo. Here he uses his brush to hint at the complexities underlying the social veneer, and if it suggests a scene from a play, it's actually based on his first novel. If there is any doubt that these canvases are the work of Williams' inner child, his bloody beach scene featuring Truman Capote as a killer baby in diapers (pictured) illustrates the puerile petulance that ensues when literary friendships go bad. Unlike much celebrity art today, these works were personal ruminations that he shared with a select few confidants. Most were collected by David Wolkowsky, his longtime friend in Key West, Florida. This is their first formal museum exhibition.

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