George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog artworks became a phenomenon, as well as a portal to creative freedom for the artist. On his canvas, along with drawings, sculptures, and digital expressions, the surrealist impulses within his Cajun paintings flourished beyond imaginary Louisiana settings to include the broad expanse of George’s mind, unlimited by a culture or region.
Simultaneously, and to his surprise, the Blue Dog Series provided George fame and financial freedom. Travel, he noted, was the greatest reward of financial success. It was on our journeys, particularly our cross-country drives, that he settled into the moment, immersed while driving as though he were painting. “What are you thinking about?” I asked as we crossed the American West, to which he replied, every time,
Ironically, the Blue Dog Series widened public and critical attention towards George’s Cajun paintings and portraits. Blue Dog naysayers asked, “When will you return to painting your real work?” …to which he often responded, in a language he thought they could better-understand,
“How many do you own?”
I watched, perhaps closer than anyone but George himself, his Blue Dog Series evolve. I struggled alongside him with definitions, as he created obsessively, having no idea and not really caring if his paintings fit a conventional definition of art. His audience craved meaning, yet meaning eluded him.
“I dropped the Cajun influence, just painting a Blue Dog, and I wondered, What does that mean?” G.R.
Consequently, he invented a meaning, and then another, and then another. The more we shared the stories, the more we exaggerated and amplified them. In turn, these evolving narratives became a part of the artistic process, sparking George’s interest and imagination, and leading to mini, yet obvious, sub-series within the Blue Dog paintings.
“You really have to look at yourself and say I wanna do this for me; because if you try to do it for an audience, you’re never going to amount to anything.” -G.R.
The Blue Dog began with the Cajun werewolf, or loup-garou, born from a French legend and a mother’s menacing threat. This became the ghost of Tiffany, a family pet, searching through a canvas-afterlife for her master. Blue Dog is a strong shape, inviting infinite decisions and possibilities for composition and color. It is a symbol of George’s artistic freedom, bursting from hundreds of canvases of dark Louisiana landscapes into hundreds of canvases of vibrant, infinite possibilities. Blue Dog is a vehicle allowing George to comment on life today, after decades of painting to preserve the past. And, ultimately, Blue Dog is George himself, the Blue Dog Man.
In the early days, particularly the 1990s, these ‘spins’ enticed buyers, who found themselves captured by the story almost as much as they felt drawn to the art itself. For the books and for those of us sharing the art publicly, it gave us a direction, an answer to the continuous question,
What’s with this dog?
While Blue Dog is all of these things, it is also none of these things. It became, and perhaps always was, something else.
As George’s primary spokesperson, it took me years to suspend these narrative explanations. Together, we tried to rationalize the irrational, attempting to fit the imagery into accepted reasoning. Dogs aren’t blue, so how can we explain the art? He paints the same static dog over and over, so how can we explain the art? The series is so successful that we have to slow sales by raising prices, so how can we explain the art? We’re presenting at a museum or university, so how can we explain the art?
For 23 years, I watched George at work. In all that time, he never once, while at his easel, mentioned the loup-garou, Tiffany, or any other storyline. He just painted.
“The paintings show a wide variety of interpretations, which is unexpected when one considers the basic premise. And it’s certainly unexpected if a person has seen only one image.” -G.R.
In many cases, it was George’s titles that linked the paintings to the current narrative.
Irregardless of George’s technical mastery, it is this creative mystery that lies at the heart of the eternal appeal of these paintings. I spied this quality, unknowingly, the first time I saw a Rodrigue.
What is it?
…I whispered at The Rodrigue Gallery of New Orleans, now thirty years ago, as I pondered George’s pivotal 1991 painting, Loup-garou.
It’s the Blue Dog!
…replied the gallery manager, soon-to-be my boss. The painting was and remains the greatest artwork, by anyone, that I have ever experienced. I didn’t even recognize it as a dog.
Today, as I write this, my current husband, Douglas Magnus, carves Our Lady of Guadalupe in stone. We spend many contented hours together with only the ‘tink-tink’ sound of his hammer and chisel. Other times, as with George, we enjoy the sounds of silence as he paints.
I am not a painter nor a stone carver; but I find my own version of this artistic euphoria within my yoga studies and, on a particularly blissful day such as this one, am able to carry that perspective with me, at least for a while, after leaving my practice.
Therein, I believe, lies the answer to the Blue Dog, and to all art that transports beyond the obvious and explainable. In yoga and meditation, for me, the feeling-body and creative, curious impulses replace the rational, thinking mind. And in art, one’s desire, imagination, and perception reign supreme!
To definitively explain the Blue Dog Series, as with all engaging artworks, is to explain it away. George knew this. He knew it as a young man, as he sat on the banks of the Bayou Teche and painted the river’s heart, something he felt within his essence but could not describe with words. Within his art, he illustrated the unexplainable, his feelings for the place he loved, for home.
During the last decade of George’s life, the public no longer seemed as focused on the stories. They related, first and foremost, to the art! George responded by exploding on his canvas with an unprecedented creative freedom, as reflected in the 2018 exhibition at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, “George Rodrigue: Discovering Late Works on Canvas and Metal.” (click the title for a brief tour.).
The Blue Dog became George Rodrigue’s enigmatic symbol for exploring and illustrating the most personal part of his being, his feelings. On his canvas, he expressed his joyful, loving essence. He tapped into his heart with increasing confidence, resulting in bolder, bigger, and brighter expressions. He painted honestly. This sincerity remained true of George throughout all the years I knew him —on any day, and at any moment, within his precious, ever-changing, brief blast of life.