01-04-2012 - Traces, n. 4

william congdon

Bill’s Life Raft
He was born 100 years ago, the night the Titanic sank. The adventurous life of this artist and Christian morphed through many transitions, from  New York with Pollock and Rothko to Venice and conversion in Assisi, and his ultimate arrival in the Milan lowlands. “I am beginning my last voyage by staying put.”

by Pigi Colognesi

Commemorating the hundredth birthday of a famous person is a risky endeavor. You set your mind at ease by burning some incense in memory of the celebrity while avoiding the reason for remembering him at all. William Congdon would be horrified to see himself treated–now that one hundred years have passed since his birth–as a revered effigy. If we take the time to review his biography we have to ask the question, “What does his experience as an artist and a Christian have to say to us today?” I believe the answer lies in seeing his life as a dramatic and fruitful form of obedience.

Yale and the war. Congdon was born on April 15, 1912, into a wealthy family of Rhode Island industrialists. His education was typical of the American Protestant upper middle-class: solid moral principles, selfless dedication to business, and just enough religion to get along well in society. To William, the second eldest of the family, it provided a horizon that proved suffocating and ill-suited to his aspirations. When the time came to choose a university, Bill broke with the idea of studying to enter the family business and instead chose to major in English at prestigious Yale University. It was at Yale that a friend casually suggested he take courses in painting, resulting in the surprising unfolding of a horizon of unrestricted creativity–the discovery of art. In order to cultivate it, Bill chose teachers foreign to the rules of the academy, who sharpened his gaze and molded his technical skills.
The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted those first steps of his artistic career. Enlisting as an ambulance driver, Bill was witness to the bloodbaths of El Alamein and Montecassino, as well as the horrors of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Faced with this dreadful tragedy, Congdon realized that the artistic gift he felt within was not only a form of individual expression, as refined and free as it might be, but rather a defiance of death. To paint is to tear a living image from amidst the decay of visible things, which in some way may save from nothingness both the artist and what he sees. Art is not an esthetic game so much as the possibility to clutch onto a life raft of meaning amidst the swirling currents of senselessness. The metaphor was not chosen by chance. Bill loved to recall that he was born the same night the Titanic went down, and he was wont to compare his existence to that of a ship constantly threatened by storms.
Having found his life raft, Congdon decided to give himself fully over to art. After the war, he left the city of his birth and moved to New York, which was transforming itself into the art capital of the world. It was an intensely rich time. Bill found a subject for his painting in the city, teeming with the humanity that formed it and the emblem of existences striving for life and harmony, constantly threatened by death and collapse. He began to paint and show his work alongside a whole generation of greats, like Pollock, Rothko, and Kline, for whom the gesture of painting–action painting–demanded a total implication of their existence, a struggle for lines, colors, and materials to extract the secrets hidden behind what is obvious, easily consumable, codified within traditional forms.
It was also a time of successes. But what Congdon was seeking could not be found in worldly satisfactions or in the glossy pages of Life magazine. Obedience to his artistic gift pushed him far from the U.S. in an interminable wandering, from Italy to the Far East, in search of images that, when transposed by memory to the canvas, could, ever so briefly, keep the promise of goodness that they aroused. The life raft visited the world’s beautiful spots and its helmsman was seized by their natural or man-made beauty, and transfigured them all in countless cycles of paintings. Yet none of those places was the longed-for port, and upon every return to Venice, his second home, the hope for salvation grew ever dimmer, to the point that, finally, Congdon reached the edge of desperation. On its own, art could not overcome death–death seen in the crags of the Santorini volcano, in the derailed train on the edge of the desert, in a Guatemalan vulture.

The harbor.  It was the summer of 1959, and an unforeseeable event entered Congdon’s life: the encounter that convinced him to enter the bosom of the Catholic Church, his authentic safe harbor. At the beginning was the companionship of the Pro Civitate Christiana in Assisi, and later the one that sprang up around Fr. Giussani, Communion and Liberation and in particular the lay order Memores Domini, to which he would remain faithful until death. Yet, for the new convert, it was not easy to harmonize obedience to his artistic gift with belonging to the Church. Having settled in Assisi, Bill accepted a possible solution by giving religious content to his art. It was a shortcut that led nowhere. His gift could not be encaged within the strictures of devotionalism. He felt the duty to keep painting what his eyes saw and, by penetrating appearances, to discover within reality itself the signs of its meaning. Furthermore, the Christianity proposed to him in the Movement avoided dualistic approaches. Christ is the truth of what is human and therefore must also be the truth of his most personal artistic vocation. Bill gave up painting sacred objects, with the exception of the Crucifix. In the image of the Savior who assumes in His martyred body the world’s sufferings, he “saw” the sorrow and the promise of his own path. Thus, the Crucifix series–almost 200 in all–continued for years, becoming simplified to the essential form, and showing ever more clearly the golden blaze of the Resurrection that shines already within the darkness of death.
In the meantime, the life raft began to travel again, to North Africa, Spain, the Holy Land, India. Bill called it his “second migration,” and it was a continuous suggestion of new images and new cycles of paintings. By then, however, the American art establishment had lost interest in him; his works were no longer shown and critics were silent. The same thing occurred in Italy.  Yet, compared to his first voyages, as Bill wrote in his diary, there was a radical difference. He had a “home” to return to, a companionship wherein, despite all his rebellions and the incomprehension of others, he could find support, comfort, and correction.

Final journey. Years passed and old age began to make itself felt. “I am beginning my last voyage by staying put,” Congdon wrote in 1979, after deciding to definitively settle in Gudo Gambaredo, in the flat Italian countryside south of Milan. His apartment and study were in the courtyard of La Cascinazza, home to a community of Benedictine monks, and he participated in the life of the nearby Memores house. The fact of no longer seeing the manifold beauties of the world, but instead the apparent monotony of the fields of Lombardy, would seem to mortify his artistic gift. Instead, an unexpectedly rich final creative phase dawned, one that the most attentive critics also took note of. The almost imperceptible chromatic change of the fields, the passing of the seasons in the majesty of the transformations it provokes, even the apparently nullifying veil of fog, all were depicted in new and powerful images. His compositions became more harmonic, his palette achieved incredibly delicate colors. And when arthritis stopped him from using his palette knife, Bill turned to pastels, in which each line became the unmistakable voice of cosmic harmony.
William Grosvenor Congdon continued to paint up until the final days before his death on April 15, 1998, his 80th birthday. His continuous obedience to his most personal gift, together with his belonging to the Church, allowed him to experience the words of the psalm: “They still bring forth fruit in old age, they are ever full of sap and green.”