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The Tempest (1965) by Bob Thompson at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida has been a painting I’ve enjoyed visiting for years. The colors first attracted me. Euphoric. Unrealistic. Almost Fauvist, but painted more than 50 years after the Fauves fizzled out.
I return and return to this painting.
It’s not one of my favorites in the museum, yet. I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than I’m currently able to appreciate. Something just out of my grasp keeping me from fully admiring it.
I’ve read that name and the wall label attached to this painting for years.
On my most recent visit to the Cummer, the name finally clicked with a story “pitch” about a Bob Thompson exhibition I received which looks amazing and for which I will be writing about at Forbes.com later this fall. I receive dozens of story pitches each month for exhibitions across the country which the organizers hope I can write about. This one stood out immediately.
The Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine currently exhibits “Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine,” the first major survey of the American artist’s work in more than two decades. I was first made aware of this show in March, but did not connect “Bob Thompson” to the artist from the Cummer until a visit in June.
One of countless examples why any art museum, even a mid-sized one like the Cummer, can only fully be enjoyed after numerous visits. There are too many pictures, too many artists, too many stories to grasp in an annual visit.
“This House Is Mine” remains on view at Colby College through January 9, 2022. It then embarks on a national tour, with presentations at the Smart Museum of Art (Chicago), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta), and the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles.) Not bad for an artist who died at 28-years-old (1937-1966).
How did I miss that extraordinary detail for so long?
On top of that, Thompson was Black, another detail I overlooked until connecting the Cummer’s Thompson painting to the Colby Show.
How did a Black painter in Jim Crow America – the South no less, Thompson was born in Louisville – who died prior to his 30th birthday, get his work into prestigious museums across the country? There’s a story.
Thompson’s work is characterized by a rigorous engagement with art history and a commitment to expressive figuration. Throughout his brief career, from 1958 through 1966, he developed a style that used canonical European paintings as points of departure to create radically inventive contemporary allegories. Inspired by such artists as Jacopo Tintoretto and Francisco de Goya, Thompson developed a highly personal and symbolic visual vocabulary that often included vignettes of silhouetted figures and animals in pastoral settings. The Cummer’s Bob Thompson painting is based on one by Renaissance artist Giorgionne.
These works recast the narrative content of his historical sources through his own aesthetic lens, producing fascinating and enigmatic compositions.
“Faced with the expectation that he, like other Black artists of that era, commit to socially illustrative representation, Thompson instead honed a brilliant and complex figurative style,” Diana Tuite, Colby College’s Katz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, said when announcing the exhibition. “He brings into relief the unnatural, ideologically constructed, violent—even absurd—conventions underlying canonical Western art, prompting us to see those paintings with fresh eyes, and to examine the exclusion —or conditional inclusion—of artists like himself in certain narratives.”
The Cummer painting now starts coming into clearer view for me.
The press release from Colby College for the Thompson show mentions his interest in Paul Gauguin. Yes, there is definitely a Gauguin/Pont-Aven, Les Nabis color palette, mark-making sensibility at play here.
Another layer of haze from the Cummer picture removed.
By 1959, Thompson had settled in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where he befriended artists, poets and jazz musicians. It was during this period that Thompson enjoyed his first solo New York City exhibition, and, within the next couple of years, his work entered some of the preeminent modern art collections in the United States.
In 1961, Thompson made his first trip to Europe, spending time in London and Paris and eventually settling in Ibiza. Another brilliant Black American artist who fled the racism and limitations of mid-century America for Europe, like Mildred Thompson, Beauford Delaney and others.
While in Spain, Thompson deepened his study of Francisco de Goya, one of my favorite painters, a painter who, on my visit to Madrid, made a deep impact on me a decade before I even became interested in art.
On a second trip to Europe in 1965, Thompson and his wife Carol settled in Rome, where he died tragically in May 1966 of complications following surgery.