The oil paint is laid on thick, like the most scrumptious cake frosting imaginable, in the portrait of the poet Robert Duncan that his life partner, the artist known as Jess, made in 1965. Duncan, his almond-shaped eyes wide open but looking not so much at us as beyond us, is nearly overwhelmed by the bohemian excess of the home on Stinson Beach, near San Francisco, where he and Jess lived together for a time in the 1950s. Among their possessions, as chronicled in this voluptuous little canvas, are volumes of esoteric literature (The Zohar and Thrice Greatest Hermes), flourishing houseplants, a phantasmagorical candle holder with a lit candle, and other fin-de-siècle bibelots. An art nouveau hanging lamp, with leaves and berries in pungent greens and reds, sets the hyperbolic mood. Every nook and cranny of the painting bursts with unexpected color combinations. Jess celebrates the high-minded hedonism of the mid-twentieth-century San Francisco Bay Area avant-garde with a canvas that rivals the enameled richness of a medieval altarpiece.
Jess’s portrait of Duncan, part of a series of paintings he called Translations, has an enigmatic title, The Enamord Mage, which was adapted from one of Duncan’s poems (see illustration below). If this title, with its archaic wording, identifies Duncan as a beloved and charismatic magician, he was also a thoroughly modern one, who along with Jess saw the liberating power of certain esoteric and occult ideas. Duncan and Jess believed that the social, sexual, and artistic choices they made in their own lives, although they might strike some as revolutionary, were among many other things a celebration of older modes of thought and feeling.
These men felt an affinity with dissident spirits from many times and places: the unconventional Victorians and Edwardians who let their imaginations run wild when they wrote books for children; the Symbolists who transformed French art and literature in the late nineteenth century; the early-twentieth-century experimentalists, especially James Joyce and Max Ernst, who reshaped verbal and visual syntax; and the filmmakers among their Bay Area cohort who broke all the rules of naturalistic storytelling and narrative coherence. They admired ancient Greek literature and the paintings of the Old Masters, but also took an interest in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and the brash, full-color advertisements in Life magazine. The archaeological, antiquarian, and archival aspects of their avant-gardism are worth contemplating now, when the swagger and free-spiritedness of the old West Coast bohemia have been buried…
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