Paul Cadmus: Enfant Terrible at 80

Year: 1986

Length: 60 minutes

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"Every once in a great while, a film comes along to demonstrate other possibilities, other approaches. One such production is PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80. The portrait is remarkably compelling ... the intense close-up succeeds in illuminating something of the artistic process that, no matter the finished style, is always profoundly serious."
Overview

When a morally indignant admiral threw Paul Cadmus's painting of rowdy sailors out of a WPA exhibition in 1934, it was only the first scandal in the artist's unusual career. In this intimate film portrait, Cadmus, at 80, makes a nude drawing of his long time companion Jon Andersson, demonstrates his mastery of ancient painting technique, and candidly recounts his past as a prominent American scene painter and controversial social satirist.

Broadcast nationally as a PBS special program

Awards & Press

Praise for "Paul Cadmus"

"David Sutherland's splendid 1986 documentary, a spare and to-the-point 60 minutes, [features] the works and reminiscence of Paul Cadmus. Now inching up to age 90, the artist was, in a sense, an enfant terrible to the extent that he painted by no rules but his own and had his 15 minutes of fame early on, not that he hasn't continued to produce sometimes quite wondrous paintings and drawings. The item that drew controversy to him, he surely didn't intend to be controversial even though his approach to portraying reality was, and to some extent long remained, distinctive, was a 1934 painting, "The Fleet's In!," which showed sailors, their tight whites leaving little to the imagination, cavorting with women of, shall we say, easy virtue. The Navy found this outrageous; the Works Project Administration (WPA), which had sponsored it, found it unacceptable; an admiral hit the roof, whence came national attention with its customary invective, excoriation, and dire prophesies of the desecration of art, the insult to the flower of American manhood and all the rest.

In this award-winning documentary, "The Fleet's In!" is given a half-minute or so, maybe a minute, no more. The artist, shown often with his favorite model, and, evidently, his lover, Jon Andersson, reflects on a wide range of his paintings and drawings, explaining that he often used himself in his paintings -- "I was the most available and least costly model" -- and also put his friends in his works. No surprise there. His symbolic models were often Renaissance and medieval paintings, which we see juxtaposed to his own works, and to the extent tht his sexuality is discussed it is often in the context of remarks about, and quotations from, letters from his friend E.M. Forster, and from W.H. Auden. We learn also what egg tempera painting involves. (I always wanted to know; didn't you?)"

-David Brudnoy, BOSTON GLOBE

"Cadmus is a consummate draftsman and a keen social satirist whose subjects of predilection have been gay male cruising rituals, sailors with bulging baskets, and the boys on the beach ... the director has sensibly let the ribald representational painter perform as a one-man band."

-Elliot Stein, VILLAGE VOICE

"***"

-Carrie Rickey, BOSTON HERALD

"The archival value of this film is tremendous and will certainly be appreciated in years to come...intelligent, humorous and visually beautiful and represents documentary filmmaking at its best."

-Anthony L. Green, FLIC

"***1/2"

-David Armstrong, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

"Every once in a great while, a film comes along to demonstrate other possibilities, other approaches. One such production is PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80. The portrait is remarkably compelling ... the intense close-up succeeds in illuminating something of the artistic process that, no matter the finished style, is always profoundly serious."

-John J. O'Connor, NEW YORK TIMES

"As sensitive a portrait of a gay relationship as has been captured in film."

-David Bonnetti, BOSTON PHOENIX

Awards

CINE Golden Eagle, 1984

Silver Venus Award, Houston International Film Festival, 1984

Best of Festival, Tyneside International Film Festival, England, 1986

Honored Filmmaker and Speaker, Roberty Flaherty Film Seminar, 1987

Finalist, Banff Television Festival, Banff Canada, 1987

Full Length Reviews

FILMMAKER'S DYNAMIC PORTRAITS OF TWO EXCITING PAINTERS

"David Sutherland is a Massachusetts director who went to film school with John Carpenter and a clutch of other bright young cinemaphiles in the early 1970's. Unlike some of his classmates, Sutherland hasn't turned out blockbuster hits in the "Halloween" mold.

Instead, Sutherland has filmed intimate, accomplished film portraits of painters. More specifically, they are studies of still-living artists who got their start in the Works Progress Administration's art projects of the 1930's.

In theory, this could be crushingly dull, combining a static view of finished paintings with an archival approach to the dear, dead past. In practice, Sutherland's is a dynamic approach, as evidenced in two of his films showing Tuesday and Wednesday at the Roxie.

PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80 is a polished profile of a painter known for his magical realism -- a representational, even narrative style that is exaggerated in an imaginative, sometimes satirical and often erotic fashion.

Like its companion film, JACK LEVINE: FEAST OF PURE REASON, released two years after this 1984 picture, PAUL CADMUS is a tightly scripted documentary that looks and feels spontaneous.

Sutherland shoots Super-8 footage of his subjects as a kind of film sketch. Then he fashions a script, using the subjects' best dialogue and most revealing scenes as take off points.

The result is a deceptively casual format in which the subject serves as host and tour guide to his life, addressing the camera directly, and usually comfortably. There is no additional narrator.

Cadmus -- a handsome, lank-haired octogenarian who looks like a vital 60-year-old -- talks about how he got started in the late 1930s, interprets his major works and shows his bucolic life in the Connecticut home he shares with his lover and model of 17 years, Jon Andersson.

Cadmus' notoriety came early. As a young painter on the New Deal payroll, his "The Fleet's In!" drew the ire of a crusty old admiral. Indeed, the work is playfully lascivious, depicting sailors on leave in a New York park, carousing with a colorful assortment of floozies. The outraged admiral inadvertently made Cadmus famous.

Other of Cadmus' works are shown in tactile, sensuous close-ups. "YMCA Locker Room" is frankly homoerotic (though not pornographic). "Subway Symphony," a hellish depiction of the New York subways is, as Cadmus describes it, his own "Inferno."

"People's noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things, pleasant and unpleasant," Cadmus asserts without rancor.

Sutherland also displays Cadmus' delicate touch with sketches and provides a fascinating discourse on painting with egg tempera -- cinematographer Joe Seaman's lens lingering on Cadmus' hands as he gently passes an unbroken yolk from palm to palm, to take off the whites.

Jack Levine, the subject of the second picture, provides a likeably abrasive counterpoint to Cadmus' gentility. Sutherland shows the Boston native, long since transplanted to New York, sitting with his pal, art historian Milton Brown, in Fenway park before a game, evoking Ted Williams' classic swing, then walking through his old South End neighborhood.

Levine is an energetic and defiant champion of the social realism popular in the 1930s -- and the only major American painter, according to the film, who's never abandoned the form.

The camera shows, in revealing close-ups, Levine's caricatures of double-dealing politicians and his large canvas renderings of Old Testament figures (with himself as a tormented King Saul) inspired by his Jewish heritage.

Sutherland also provides engaging footage of Levine painting a portrait of his daughter Susanna -- returning every so often to watch the artist select a color or rub out an error -- and moving moments in which Levine remembers his late wife, the painter Ruth Gikow.

Like PAUL CADMUS, JACK LEVINE is bracing, intelligent and intimate without being intrusive, adeptly fusing art history and the personal histories of these two talented American artists."

-David Armstrong, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

"PAUL CADMUS," ON 13, A STUDY OF THE ARTIST AT 80

"Television has never been completely at ease in dealing with art and artists. At its best, the medium can serve as a kind of college extension course, covering vast expanses or focusing on intricate details. At its worst, it can hire a celebrity to oversee a second-rate essay. Then every once in a great while, a film comes along to demonstrate other possibilities, other approaches. One such production is PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80.

Mr. Cadmus has persistently stayed outside the mainstream of 20th-century American art. His representational style has been labeled "magic realism" by some admirers. There is a pronounced element of eroticism, especially homoeroticism, in his works. His reputation was started through something of a scandal, back in 1934, when an admiral insisted that one of his paintings be withdrawn from Washington's Corcoran Gallery. "The Fleet's In!" had been painted by Mr. Cadmus for the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project. It depicted sailors on leave carousing with assorted "loose" women on a New York street. Mr. Cadmus explains that he "envied the freedom of their lives, their lack of inhibitions." The admiral thought it was simply lewd. Ironically, the painting hangs in the Naval Historical Center.

As it turns out in this film, produced and directed by David Sutherland with support from Fairfield University, the "enfant terrible" is a very thoughtful and quietly articulate gentleman, who looks about 20 years younger than his stated age. Living in Connecticut with Jon Andersson, his model and companion for more than 17 years, Mr. Cadmus talks about himself and his work with insight, perspective and wit. Mr. Sutherland dispenses with narrators or interviewers. "The goal," he explains, "was to get the artist to act as host in a film about himself." Captured through the sensitive camera work of Joe Seamans, the portrait is remarkably compelling.

Mr. Cadmus traces his early career more or less chronologically, beginning with a couple of years in Majorca in the Balearic Islands and then in New York's Union Square scene, bustling with artists such as Isabel Bishop and Raphael Soyer. In the late 1930's, he would spend a good deal of time in the new Saltaire community of Fire Island. His paintings -- "Coney Island," "Subway Symphony," "Y.M.C.A. Locker Room," among them -- would earn adjectives like obscene and lurid. Beneath the blazing clarity of bulging muscles and revealing clothes, there would lurk a sense of mystery. Mr. Cadmus says: "I believe in exaggeration. People's noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things -- pleasant and unpleasant." If his subject matter seems partial to "freaks," he amiably quotes Flannery O'Connor: "We are all grotesques."

The artist can be refreshingly practical, confessing that he does many more drawings than paintings because they are "more salable, less demanding." Discussing his relatively small output, he says, "I'm slow and lazy -- but how much does one have to say anyway?" He himself prefers the few novels of E.M. Forster, who became a friend, to the vast output of a Trollope. It is all, he adds, a matter of taste. Perhaps, he says, later, an artist's limitations are his trademark. As Oscar Wilde put it, only an auctioneer can like all kinds of paintings.

Mr. Cadmus has been served well by Mr. Sutherland (and also, incidentally, by Lincoln Kirstein, the artist's brother-in-law, who has written a book that uses comments from the film). The intense close-up succeeds in illuminating something of the artistic process that, no matter the finished style, is always profoundly serious. Mr. Cadmus quotes Flaubert, "Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, so you can be vigilant and original in your works." Mr. Sutherland plans an extensive series on New Deal artists. He has finished a film on Jack Levine, and is now working on one about Jacob Lawrence. This is, clearly, a project of unusual promise."

-John J. O'Connor, NEW YORK TIMES

DESPERATELY SEEKING SODOM

"In David Sutherland's PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80, the director has sensibly let the ribald representational painter perform as a one-man band. No art historian natters on about his work, there is no interviewer; what we get is a piquant hour with Cadmus, mostly in his Connecticut studio, shooting the breeze about his life and work as he sketches his longtime model and companion Jon Andersson. ("I specialize in male nudes because female nude models have a tendency to faint," he says perfectly deadpan.) During one cosy interlude, artist and model are seated at the piano and Cadmus plays while Andersson sings to him, "You gave me the best years of my life."

The Mantegna of YMCA locker rooms, the self-proclaimed dean of the "Fire Island school of painting," Cadmus is a consummate draftsman and a keen social satirist whose subjects of predilection have been gay male crusing rituals, sailors with bulging baskets, and boys on the beach. Oddly enough, although a selection of his salty pictures are shown in detail, the most sensuous scene in this sympathetic film is that of the octogenarian artist preparing an egg tempera, we hear Cadmus explaining his Renaissance technique, and just before he peels off its skin and stirs in some pigment, we get an eye-filling close-up of a shimmering, quivering egg yolk passing from palm to palm. The yolk seems alive in the painter's lined hands. It is an unforgettable image. Eros, is after all, wherever you find the little bugger."

-Elliot Stein, VILLAGE VOICE

CAPTURING CADMUS

"Henry James supposedly said, 'Art historians are to artists as ornithologists are to birds.' And since I'm more of a bird than a ornithologist, I'm doing the talking."

That's American "magic realist" painter Paul Cadmus speaking about himself and his work in David Sutherland's candid film portrait, PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80. The hour-long documentary will be shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden tomorrow at noon and 6 p.m.

Sutherland's intimate camera shows us Cadmus in his own world, working in his Connecticut studio and wandering the streets of New York, his ice-blue eyes lively under a shock of steely gray hair. His vigor, humor and talent are undiminished, but there's a strong sense of time pressing in on him. "There are those who think I'm not alive today, but that is their perogative," he says.

At the first retrospective of his work, in Oxford, Ohio, Cadmus confronts "The Fleet's In!," the controversial 1933 painting that made him famous overnight. (Lost for nearly 50 years, it was only recently rediscovered.) While an artist in the WPA, Cadmus painted this grotesque, satiric scene of sailors and floozies having a raucous time on shore. The piece was included in a show of public works of art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, where it scandalized an admiral who immediately ordered it removed, calling it a disgrace to the Navy. "I owe the start of my career to the admiral who supressed it," Cadmus says. His work, frankly erotic, often homoerotic, has ever since been identified with controversy -- a later picture, titled "Sailors and Floozies," again stirred up a ruckus, this time at an exhibition in San Francisco.

The Cadmus film is the first of Sutherland's projected 13-part series on New Deal artists, which benefits from the fact that the artists are still around to talk about their lives and work. Cadmus is the sole narrator of this film, and he examines his own work, which merges the mythic with the mundane. Explaining his choice of often lurid subject matter, he says, "Peoples noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things -- pleasant and unpleasant."

-Joe Brown, WASHINGTON POST

CADMUS: VIEW OF AMERICA IN THE RAW

"Artist Paul Cadmus was swept to fame on a 1934 tidal wave of indignation. A U.S. Navy official, outraged by Cadmus' lurid painting of carousing sailors on shore leave, claimed the "disreputable drunken brawl" came from "the sordid, depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of actual conditions in our service."

"The Fleet's In!" -- painted during a federally funded art project and hung in Washington's Corcoran Gallery -- was removed from public view, but the ruckus ricocheted in the press. Cadmus' hate mail accused him of being a traitor and a perpetrator of "Communist Jew Culture," while supporters rallied to his side.

Depression-era notoriety launched Cadmus' career, but his lusty satires -- painstakingly painted in egg tempera -- haven't landed him a major status in American art history. His seamy view of the American scene remains a kinky, homoerotic footnote, only recently revived in David Sutherland's fine hour long documentary, PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80.

The 1984 film has been gathering accolades and awards ever since its East Coast premiere and screenings at various festivals.

PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80 has many virtues. Most important among them are that the artist speaks for himself and that he is not romanticized. We aren't confronted with Dustin Hoffman confessing his ignorance of art, as in the "Strokes of Genius" TV series, or with Kirk Douglas dredging up old footage of himself as Vincent Van Gogh, as in "A Day in the Country."

After a clamorous bout at his retrospective exhibition, we have only to follow Cadmus on Cadmus as he looks back to his youth, visits painting sites, conducts an egg tempera demonstration, strolls the wooded grounds of his Connecticut home and draws his male lover, who also sings while Cadmus accompanies him on a piano.

The impressionistic film flits about a bit too much, but it builds a fully rounded picture of an artist whose work implies one-dimensionality, Cadmus -- looking wonderfully fit at 80, in his jeans and blue Shetland sweater -- talks about everything from his admiration for classical drawing to his correspondence with E.M. Forster. Chatting about his art, Cadmus tells of painting "hateful subjects" with "delicacy and precision" and of the necessity of exaggeration.

"People's noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things," declares the artist who later contradicts himself by saying, "I never aimed to be controversial."

His art is by turns too lewd, too grotesque and too violent to avoid controversy. It is also too well produced and too passionate to be dismissed lightly. As "Sailors and Floozies," "Y.M.C.A. Locker Room," "Subway Symphony," "Seven Deadly Sins" and the particularly brutal "Herrin Massacre" (depicting the slaughter of strike-breaking miners) appear on the screen, we realize that this art still has the power to make us wince and shudder."

-Suzanne Muchnic, LOS ANGELES TIMES