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Walt Kuhn: Painter Performer
(continued, p. 3)
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"Girl in White Chemise" (1921)
KUHN ESSAY CONTINUES CLICK HERE
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Leona as "Country Girl"
"Hedda" $47,800 at Christie's
Kuhn’s very last model felt the "brutality" of his vision. She was a teenager summering in Ogunquit in
1948, who posed for his final major painting, “Deborah in Costume” (known to Vera but first seen in "Walt
Kuhn," Barridoff/Salander-O’Reilly,1984; Rob Elowitch and Larry Salander assembled “from the estate”
most of the Kuhn works first shown in the 1984 exhibition and catalogue, and both of the Hedda
paintings bear Salander labels.) Kuhn envisioned Deborah as a trapeze artist, but even so his application
of performer makeup was the major part of the procedure, “He brought out all of his rouges and colors
and sat me down, and very slowly began spreading them all over my face. He spent a good twenty
minutes or half an hour putting it on me. You can imagine the significance of all this…the application of
the makeup, I swear—the whole sense of it—was as much and as great as putting the paint on the
canvas.” The French-Canadian girl model is telling us that Kuhn painted his ladies before painting them,
and the effect was critical: “It was almost like he was changing me, like he was creating the person…It
had nothing to do with posing; for him, it was a whole presence that he was setting up there, and I felt,
from the moment he began putting on the makeup every day that he was in total control. I was very
tense. I was traumatized by it…his energy…those incredible blue eyes. He was not just looking at you but
through you, in you” (in B. Perlman, "Walt Kuhn," Midtown Gallery, 1989, p. 20, and cf. Ralph Sessions,
“Walt Kuhn: Showman,” in "Walt Kuhn American Modern," D.C. Moore Gallery, 2013, p.53, the most recent
exhibition.) Kuhn worked her hard, finishing her last day with a session lasing from one p.m. to 5p.m. with
only two short breaks, but achieved a painting he called "quietly beautiful and very restrained--
something unusual."

Kuhn’s quest for ultimate form is dangerous because it exposes a powerful archetype. Compare (as his
similar titles often tell us to) his early “Girl in White Chemise” (1921) with his “Girl in White” (1942). The
commedia dell’arte mask has been transformed and harshly dramatized to give threatening power to its
hollow stare. Kuhn said that the cubist works he recruited for the Armory Show were “mostly literary, and
lacking in that passion or sex evidence, which is absolutely necessary for me” (in Adams, p. 50). The
sexual energy of Kuhn’s women has been reconfigured. His honky-tonk hoofers transcend precisely
because they’ve “been plenty kicked around” and they have learned how to fight back. Whether they
wear a shako or a green pom-pom or a set of gaudy plumes—almost all are helmeted—even Hedda in her
straw hat. “Trude” (1931) marks the turning point. In the words of "Fifty Paintings," “striking a powerful
stance, proud Trude remains, as either principal or chorine, ever victorious.” The best are a legion of
Mädchen in Uniform (Sagan and Froelich’s film first screened in Germany in 1931), whom Kuhn painted as
“Grenadier,” “Majorette,” “Lancer,” “Fusilier,” “Tiger Trainer,” and “Dragoon.” (Adams adds
“Cannoneer,” No. 514; and  "Girl in Uniform" No. 343.) Kuhn’s valkyrie culminate in the 1943 masterpiece,
“Showgirl in Armor,” whose sharply-pointed, silvery metalic breasts both protect and can rebuff
(castrate) an unwanted male embrace, and as the face above them shows, do so without concern. The
background is mottled because Kuhn before the final stage would lay his canvas flat on the floor and
cover it with wet newsprint to draw oil from the pigment creating the tonal equivalent of a worn
billboard—what Baur calls “tinsel without its shine.”

Kuhn told his wife that she was “sullen and secretive,” and declared in another letter, “Thank God,
nobody knows what goes on between a man and a woman.” But indeed Kuhn did know. Adams says Kuhn
“was always reticent about his intimate relations with women, which by all indications were plentiful and
successful.” His fellow Penguin Club member Louis Bouché was more to the point when he remarked,
“Kuhn was a fascinating man. It is small wonder that he charmed so many women.” His women stare out
at us with the knowledge that Kuhn has undressed them, by seeing through them, and then redressed
them in a uniform, and finally used them in the course of painting them. Kuhn has stripped them of their
makeup and then covered their exposed face by repainting it with clown color as a doll’s face—all to
show us what they really are. His painted ladies are painted because they are literally “showgirls” in
every sense of the word. They show us what it is to be a woman--period. As Adams says, “Their lives
have already turned them into metaphors” ("Painter of Vision," U of Arizona Art Gallery, 1966). Their toy-
soldier uniform is first an entertainer’s mimicry and then transcends because the toy soldier can refuse
our gratification. Male mockery (toying with it) gives the doll power by exposing ultimate male fear. And
the faces of Kuhn’s women know this and they are tired of it but “the show must go on,” as Kuhn was
fond of saying. This is what Burroughs calls “the hard facts” because their faces expose the emptiness
of the ruses by which they have been dominated. And the one who knows most of all Kuhn names “Sibyl”
(1932), modeled by dancer Margaret Manly. She stands full length (68” x 33”), barest of the showgirls, her
arms akimbo, legs bare, and naked torso rising out of a central ridiculous green bush of cloth leaves.
One critic found her face, with its hawkish stare, “faintly terrifying.” She is Kuhn’s very defiant Eve, and
she knows exactly what every man in the burlesque audience is thinking.
"Hedda" debut show 1944 (Not in Adams)
"Plumes" (1931)
"Showgirl in Armor" (1943)
Kuhn’s achievement was equally masterpiece when he painted his “male picture crop” of circus people,
and he made just such a gender distinction from his “girl pictures” in a letter to Vera. The men were
mostly George Fitzgerald an actor who (per Vera) had appeared in a skit created by Kuhn called "Lilies of
the Field" (cf. Adams, p. 257). It was Fitzgerald who introduced Kuhn to his female favorite Ruth
Johnston, and he had the advantage of looking somewhat like Kuhn, which allowed the painter to self-
model for a number of works where Fitzgerald was the start. Herbert Bergman, an actor Kuhn had seen
at the Grove Street Theater in the winter of 1929 posed for “Athlete,” and “Performer,” but when Kuhn
heard the model had put it around that he deserved a percentage of the sale price of “The White
Clown,” which he had posed for, he dropped him. He preferred Vittorio Falconi for “The Blue Clown” and
three other works. The acrobat Ben Benson was also in a number of works, notably “Trio.” As clowns
these models are not much fun—indeed they almost scowl beneath their hook-shaped black brows.
There is the skull cap, to start, which adds the aura of the grave. The eyes are wide but tightly narrowed,
again introducing an Asian element. The cheekbones are high and prominently shaded—and then the
cheeks turn sharply inward, allowing the hanging jaw as heavily outlined to drop straight down on either
side, framing the mouth in a black box whose bottom is narrow but square and topped by the flat, cut-off
nose. As Frank Getlein (in Adams, p. 118) saw, “the effect comes from the powerful constricted geometry
built up and around the face.” The mouth is almost disdainful because it belongs to a fool who is forced
to make a mockery of an already mad world. There is despair too because the fool best knows ‘what fools
these mortals be.'

There should be no wonder that it took Kuhn so long to break through with “The White Clown” because
of the scope and depth of his endeavor. As far back as 1916, he had painted a work showing a clown
couple and called “The Tragic Comedians” (bought by Quinn), and in 1918 he painted the giant 8’ by 3’
“Harlequin” (also bought by Quinn and later repurchased and then cut down in size by Brenda).
“Intermezzo” (1921) posed both Harlequin and Pierrot back to back, but was later destroyed. After 1925,
what Kuhn poured his energy into was the development of Rodin skill, one reason he preferred
sculptors to painters. Kuhn knew the Armory Show had left him with recognition as an organizer and
trend spotter, but not a painter’s reputation. His early work had failed to achieve his goal. Over the next
dozen years he wasted time on an extensive series of paintings called, “An Imaginary History of the
West,” on railroad club car décor, and scripted burlesque reviews and clown acts. But In 1925, a near-
death ulcer experience determined him to spend every drop of his energy on his painting. (Finally, it was
a perforated ulcer that killed him in 1949.) It took until 1938 before he could write to French art collector
and author Henri Pierre Roche (who his favorite, Brancusi, had introduced him to on his last trip to
Europe): “Considering that I am insistent as always in painting exactly what I want…I have more or less
arrived at the point where I can make my brushes carry out my instructions.”
"Acrobat in Green" (1927)
"The Blue Clown" (1931)
"Kansas" (1932)
Only with a master’s talent could he transform the sentimental Pagliacci figure into Lear’s fool. And
Kuhn, in his own words, was “nuts about Shakespeare.” Much earlier Quinn had written that Kuhn’s
works “give us the ‘humor of the mind,’ a lean humor. They have the true comic touch and comedy as
Meredith said, ‘watches over sentimentalism with a birch rod’” (in Adams, p.79). Exactly what Kuhn
aimed for can be seen in his reaction to a painting he saw in a 1945 exhibition that included: “A big life
size one by [German/American abstract expressionist Karl] Zerbe of two Ringling clowns done in a
mixture of Braque, Dali and the Sat Eve Post---. Good in color, but direction most confused. The usual
big nose clown point of view.” Kuhn was no romantic realist, and told critic Phil Bloom who had praised
his “Sylvester” that its success depended on “my fortunate capture of the dignity of the subject. I don’t
always hit it as well as this. It has always been a favorite problem of mine to retain the pride of the stage
no matter how grotesque or comic the subject.” This dignity is felt in his ultimate masterpiece, the clown
portrait he first called “Kansas” (1932) because, as he joked, nobody knows why most clowns come from
that state. Clearly Kuhn’s hidden reference is to "The Wizard of Oz," whose title character we remember
was a circus trickster from Kansas. Kuhn refused to sell the painting in his lifetime and stipulated that it
be retitled after his death as the “Portrait of the Artist as a Clown.” The commentary accompanying the
painting in "Fifty Paintings" is completely revealing: “This is one of the artist’s most severe paintings. It
has a hard, granite quality of form, with every non-essential trimmed away. Fearless individualism.
Splendid isolation.” In other words, his paramount self-portrait, whose stony Aristotelian “form” reminds
us that from the time of the Armory Show, Cezanne was Kuhn’s master. The masterpiece must give
meaning to what he called in "Fifty Paintings"-- “a lump of weighted form, the one, the universal
substance of art”—what is real. The artist must use metaphor to tell us, “Here it is whole again.”

Kuhn’s sense of absolute control is necessary because painting a masterpiece is, in fact, dangerous. He
told artist Eric Lundgren, another Maine summer painter, whom he first met in Palm Beach: “You, like
every painter, naturally lean two ways. It’s easy to be either too tight or too sloppy….I find it takes at
least three cracks to paint a good picture….Be sure to turn on the gusto after the second sitting, that’s
the dangerous time where one is apt to go tight. I always sit down and contemplate half an hour before
going at the third stanza and decide definitely to take a chance and risk sinking the whole thing.” To
avoid disaster the artist must transcend the subject—and that is a very risky process. To be too tight is
to be too real, constricting the metaphor, while looseness means being too private. Kuhn painted what
he called “buckeyes,” the spikey fruit of horse chestnuts—ugly on the outside but a shiny bright
polished nut on the inside. His ability to do so reflects his understanding of what Weimar painters Otto
Dix and George Grosz called Verism, from Latin verus, meaning “truth,” ugly or not. Weimar’s New
Objectivity sought to portray a sense of realism missing from abstract expressionism, where metaphor
surrenders the vehicle altogether. Kuhn explained the danger of being too real in his 1948 letter to
Syracuse University art professor Gordon Paxon:
Kuhn Essay, p. 1
Kuhn Essay, p. 3
Kuhn Essay, p. 4
Kuhn Essay, p. 2