Museums and Critics, an Early History

“I’m a survivor.” George Rodrigue, 2011

In 1969 the Art Center of Southwest Louisiana held George Rodrigue’s first solo museum exhibition. Located in Lafayette at the University of Southwest Louisiana, the museum, also known as the Pink Palace, existed within a Mississippi River-style plantation, surrounded by huge columns and designed by architect A. Hays Town.

“USL offered to show my work,” says George Rodrigue, “because of the notoriety from my first show, held earlier that year at Christopher’s Antiques in New Iberia. I had painted full time less than a year at this point, and it all happened so fast that I mistakenly thought that fame and fortune were around the corner.”

Despite his somewhat caustic recollection, a young George Rodrigue (b. 1944) did experience a rush of attention for a few years in the early 1970s. Most significant, the Louisiana State Art Commission sponsored a large Rodrigue exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum in the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge in 1970.
“The director first told me that they book shows three years ahead, and that I was wasting my time in trying. But two months later he called and explained that the scheduled exhibition fell through. Did I still have seventy framed oak tree paintings available? 
“This was my biggest break yet, because I might be reviewed in the newspaper by the Baton Rouge art critic. As the state capitol’s paper, The Morning Advocate was widely read and held tremendous influence across the state. I waited anxiously every week for an article about my show.”

George framed his landscape paintings in large gold antique frames, most of which he found in junk shops and flea markets. To this date, just prior to his Aioli Dinner, he painted only two figures, small imaginary portraits, Cajun Man and Cajun Woman.

To his surprise, he opened the Advocate one Sunday to find his first ever newspaper article, a half page review with images. The headlines nearly destroyed this otherwise confident artist, “Painter Makes Bayou Country Dreary, Monotonous Place.”

Art critic Anne Price derided both the artist and his art with her public opinion, words committed to George’s memory even today:

“The total effect is repetitious and monotonous, with all of the scenes similar, the treatment never varying… His paintings are flat and drab rather than teeming with life. His bayou country is a shadowy, depressing place with none of the life and color that pulses there. Even his few portraits are somber affairs, and his people give the impression that life is hard and serious business. One feels that the artist takes Acadiana much too seriously, and perhaps himself as well.”

George also memorized her fail-safe, written as though she knew her criticism might miss the mark:

“He shows some competence as a painter, particularly in his use of light…but he repeats the same theme and technique in virtually every painting. The ability is there, plus the obvious dedication to his subject, and he may well develop into a first class painter…”

I was amused to find a rather charming photograph of an elderly Anne Price, a woman I always imagined an ogre, along with a 2006 Advocate story of her sixty-one years at the paper linked here. She and George never met, and yet at this point, I believe he would smile and shake her hand. She had a profound and lasting effect on him. Personally, the experience gave him self-confidence. In twenty years, I have yet to see George rattled by negative remarks or criticism. Professionally, this resulting self-confidence helped him soar as an artist, barking at the canons and societal pressure of contemporary art, and rejecting outside advice in both his art and business.

(pictured, Rodrigue’s most recent painting: Cajuns and Blue Dogs on the River 2011, 48×72)

In some ways George has defended himself for forty years against Price’s analysis. In a 1974 article by Camilla Hunt Cole for Art in America he says, “I am not attempting to represent literally any one scene but to evoke a mood and stimulate imagination,” a comment easily applied to his entire oeuvre, from Landscapes to Cajuns, as well as later series: Blue Dogs, Hurricanes, and Bodies.

“Rodrigue’s paintings are exciting because they are innovative. They appeal to the intellect as well as to the imagination. Moreover, he has succeeded in capturing the very essence of Southwest Louisiana, its land and its people. In his paintings he reveals to us not what Acadiana looks like but what it is.” – Camilla Hunt Cole for Art in America, 1974

Following the Baton Rouge show, museum director Claude Kennard, as if rooting for the underdog, admired George’s large-scale landscapes, described just months earlier by Price as ‘overly grandiose’ and ‘the least stimulating’ of all his works. The one-man exhibition premiered at the Beaumont Art Museum, now known as the Museum of Southeast Texas, to rave reviews in August of 1971.

“George Rodrigue’s vision, abstract and severely linear in its inception, takes form first as a line-drawing, then through an obsession with major and basic forms, developing into an elemental landscape statement, austere and sober, limited in color but rich in range of hues, validly restrictive to the nature of the landscape of Lafayette parish and surrounding areas in South Louisiana and Southeast Texas. Human and architectural features emerge in terms of the dusky world of pervasive subtropical shade where white is exotic and sky minimal.” – Claude L. Kennard, Director of the Beaumont Art Museum, 1971

Later that year, Alberta Collier, art critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, further redeemed the young artist, whom she described as

“… a romantic who loves the countryside where he grew up; he paints the bayous, the simple Acadian cabins and the moss-hung oaks with the love of the true native. His landscapes are not executed in a style he picked up from the past, but in a manner which has something of Louisiana Art Nouveau, something of the direct conceptions of William Aiken Walker, but more of Rodrigue himself.”

For George, his crowning achievement of these early years occurred in 1974. Accepted as one of four thousand entrants in the prestigious Le Salon in Paris, he was the only American honored, receiving an honorable mention for his painting The Class of Marie Courrege (pictured above). Afterwards, the French newspaper Le Figaro described Rodrigue as “America’s Rousseau.”

(For a detailed history behind George’s experience at Le Salon, see the post, “American Artists in Paris,” featuring Rodrigue and John Singer Sargent)

Also in the early 1970s George saw his painting, Aioli Dinner, accepted for exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) during their annual juried show. He grumbles still today that his painting was the only canvas in the museum’s Great Hall not to win an award. (for a detailed history of the Aioli Dinner, pictured below, visit here)

However, I remind him that the museum, and particularly its long-running and recently retired director John Bullard, has more than made up for this oversight, with a blockbuster Rodrigue exhibition in 2008, a current state-wide tour of his paintings from their permanent collection, and NOMA’s near-reverence of the Aioli Dinner, which hangs full-time in the museum today, not as Louisiana folk art, but at the top of the grand staircase, alongside other great American landscape and genre paintings.

It was not until the early 1990s and the Blue Dog Series that museums again noticed George’s work. His gallery representation too was minimal at best. He was a figurative artist painting at a time when Abstract Expressionism was the norm in the South and elsewhere. Figurative art was non-existent on the national scene.
“My style,” George says, “was outdated and out of touch with contemporary directors that viewed their shows as a reflection of what was going on in New York.”
But I’ll save the last twenty years of history, including solo museum shows in Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, Northwest Florida, Europe (especially Germany), and throughout Louisiana for another day, even as I direct you to this link for the latest exhibition schedule.

Instead, I leave you with a few prophetic words from George Rodrigue, written in 1974:

“At this time, artists should try to produce something from themselves, or from their area – that’s where art is headed today. All America really has left in art is what one feels.”

Although he didn’t intend it as funny at the time, George and I both laughed out loud as we read this statement that he made for a 1974 article in the Lafayette Advertiser:

“Today, anything new is accepted as art. Anything that hasn’t been done before. But after going through pop art, op art, abstracts – what’s left that’s new? Not much. That’s one reason why things have been slow in the art world for the last eight-or-so years.”

I hope you also enjoy “Southern Delicacies: Old Ladies Talking,” a story of eaves-dropping and outrageous cuisine for this week’s Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans; also “Avoiding Politics,” defining events from a political agnostic-