Looking closely at Eugene Berman’s paintings is like playing a memory game, as one critic noted in 1947. Born in Russia, Berman sought to create poetic art, filled with forms from the past. Before emigrating to the U.S. on the eve of the Second World War, he traveled extensively in Europe, sketching Italianate architecture and objects in museum collections. Berman filtered the sketches through his memory, creating loose associations between forms. The result comes across as a postapocalyptic dreamscape, but one that seems familiar. Haven’t I seen that woman somewhere before? Or those ruins?
Take, for example, Sunset (Medusa) (1945), on view in the American Galleries of the Museum’s West Building. The crouching figure may have come out of Berman’s study of Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I. Or the woman could depict a dancer in a deep curtsy. Or both. Berman was renowned for his set and costume designs for ballet and opera, and the setting of the painting is certainly stagelike.
Berman painted Sunset (Medusa) while living in Los Angeles and modeled the figure on his future wife, the actress Ona Munson. A petite blonde, Munson often used wigs and padding to transform her appearance on the silver screen. In Sunset (Medusa) Berman chose to depict Munson with the same fiery locks she donned as redhead Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939). Personally, I think it’s a shame that he didn’t imitate the serpentine black curls from her role as “Mother” Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture (1941). (Could this be where Berman picked up the idea of Medusa?)
Berman painted images of Medusa throughout the early 1940s. Medusa’s Corner (1943) is a clear forerunner to the painting at the NCMA, which Berman continued to finesse. He also sketched Munson as Medusa on several occasions and even transferred her face onto small assemblages of seashells and coral.
These, I think, are part of the key to unlocking the mystery of Berman’s Medusa. In mythology the gorgon was famous for turning men to stone with her gaze. Few know, however, that she once held the same power over plants. According to Ovid, Perseus—the hero who beheaded Medusa—laid the gorgon’s head on a bed of seaweed. The seaweed then hardened and turned to coral.
Looking closely at Sunset (Medusa), it appears that the figure is holding coral in her hands as she takes her final bow. The architectural setting, too, appears pitted and porous like coral. Could it be that Medusa has petrified the landscape?
Berman often used mythology as a framework to comment on the violence of Second World War without depicting it directly. Though the landscapes he painted were “bullet-ridden,” they never included guns, bombs, or tanks. Medusa may have stood in for these artifacts of destruction. With her power she embodied a cataclysmic force capable of transforming the European landscape into hardened ruins.
One reason I wanted to write this blog post was to get more people involved in the “memory game.” Berman never intended his paintings to have clear meanings, though several elements in Sunset (Medusa) suggest associations. Could that object on the wall be Perseus’s mirrorlike shield? Perhaps the menacing shadow is the hero’s face in profile as he approaches, ready to slay the gorgon? Could Medusa’s impending death be the “sunset” in the title?
Let the games begin …
Laura Fravel, GSK Curatorial Fellow
Hear more about Laura Fravel’s research at Lunch and Lecture: Hollywood’s Golden Age and the NCMA, Friday, October 4, at 11 am.