Years ago, George’s and my publishing agent, Roz Cole, pushed me to write a book she called, How to Love.* At the time, I humored her by considering it, but I deferred to projects focused directly on George. And yet, she was talking about George.
George and I had already written a book together, Blue Dog Love, with passages of our words intermixed with his paintings. Opposite his painting, Love’s Sneakin’ Up on Me, he wrote,
“True love was as unexpected as the Blue Dog. We all know that if we look for something, we never find it. But if it finds us, we immediately know when it feels right. For forty years I painted for the love of it. But when I met someone who understood me and what I do, I found that my passion for painting became a passion for sharing.
“Again the timing was perfect. They say that love puts a new spring in your step. A person walks differently after they’ve found love. In the same way, love is the most recent addition to my style. To my mind, I am not out there painting on my own anymore, trying to make people understand my vision. There is more feeling in my canvases today than ever before, and there is at least one person who understands that as well as I do.”Blue Dog Love (2001, Harry N. Abrams, NYC)
Soon after Blue Dog Love, George began his plans and designs for a series he ultimately called Bodies. He photographed and sketched me for two years before he began painting. He often joked that it took that long to get me to quit ‘posing,’ specifically the cocked hip and extended foot that I learned from my mother. In retrospect, however, I think he allowed the series to unfold in its own time. He enjoyed the creative process, the moment, and the excitement of a major body of artwork shared, at least initially, just between us.
These sessions were serious and, for me, sometimes uncomfortable, especially when I found myself, at George’s direction, perched on a tree branch or partially submerged in freezing water. Yet the sessions were also joyful, dreamy, and terribly romantic. Occasionally he sketched me from life, but more often, he set up his tripod and photographed. He later poured for hours over the pictures, many of which became drawings.
Although George photographed me in California, he fabricated the backgrounds in his paintings and drawings, often incorporating Louisiana references, such as moss-laden oak trees and above-ground tombs. The photographs I post here are just a few from the portfolio he kept with him the rest of his life.
Between 2002 and 2005, George experimented on his canvas with approach and design, rejecting numerous paintings. He settled, at last, on a handful, created over three years. These inspired a series of what he called “remastered digital prints,” which he created within his computer and considered the final artworks.
George decided against calling the series “Wendy,” because he worried about a public backlash, particularly on me. This concerned him so greatly that he occasionally altered features in my face so that it would appear that I was not the only model.
My current husband, Douglas Magnus, also an artist, was close friends with George, and the two often discussed each other’s work:
“George called the series ‘Bodies,’ but that’s a miss-labeling, because it is a celebration of one woman. He chose Wendy, the greatest love of his life. He was so enthralled with her that he created this large body of work. He went to great lengths to envision these photographs, paintings, drawings, and prints as the artistic masterpieces that they are.”
“This was not an easy task. He had to photograph Wendy extensively and visualize her body as a shape, much like the Blue Dog was just a shape (a ‘body’), that he repeated over and over, exploring the variations in which the shape could be manipulated into a form that expressed what he wanted to express and filled the canvas in the way he wanted to fill the canvas. In many cases, these were basically studies that lead to an ongoing interest for the rest of his life.”
“Normally, the human race celebrates the figure in fashion photos, but in the honest, real world of the human experience, everybody loves and celebrates the human form, above all else. That’s all there is to it. Look at the Venus of Willendorf!”Douglas Magnus
George has always been indifferent with regards to public opinion in both his art and in love. But for me, the public reaction to these works was unexpected and intense. We were making art… together! While this was accepted with regards to George as the male artist, it was controversial with regards to me, his female model and muse. I was accosted publicly and uncomfortably more than once, including during Rodrigue art lectures, at restaurants, and even at the New Orleans Museum of Art, often resulting in our abrupt departure.
Although I wish I could erase those scenes from my memory, the truth is that I got over them pretty quickly, and that perhaps they were necessary experiences as I dare to share these images today. I believe strongly that hiding them away is a disservice to George’s artistic legacy, to our relationship, and to George himself. Had I been asked my thoughts on this, either then or now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. George saw, as he had predicted, what was happening with the release of these works, and he worried, as he always did, about me. But he also kept photographing, drawing, and painting.
I can’t help but look at Bodies in a way that is different from anyone else. Every painting recalls multiple scenes and emotions, from our photography sessions to life drawings to discussions about the works. And then there’s the act of painting itself and the many nights I awoke to find George at his easel, quiet and immersed. Ultimately, these artworks are a symbol of our relationship, including our mutual passion for art, the creative process, and each other.
Painted entirely in Carmel, California, Bodies premiered in 2005 at Rodrigue Studio, New Orleans, where George himself installed it throughout our Royal Street gallery. Bodies commanded its own room at the New Orleans Museum of Art during the museum’s 2008 Rodrigue retrospective exhibition.
Today, the series is an integral part of George Rodrigue’s artistic oeuvre. Technically, the artworks in Bodies serve as a demonstration of his command of drawing and design. They express another dimension of George’s life and legacy, separate from his better known Blue Dog and Cajun Series. In a sense, Bodies is a collaboration in that the series emanates from our feelings, from our love. More importantly, however, these artworks are born out of George Rodrigue’s dedication to creating sincere and highly personal paintings. Although the work is public, its creation was, until now, very private. He refused to explain the series and preferred that the art speak for itself.
“I didn’t make them for others, Wendy,” said George, as we stood surrounded by Bodies in NOMA, “I made them for us.”
*For Roz: We lived. We loved. The end.