Pollock and Dartmouth: A Visual Encounter

Posted on March 01, 2007 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring 2007
Brian Kennedy, Director

Although Jackson Pollock, like many great artists, was always reluctant to reveal any artistic influences on his work, it has long been known that he was powerfully affected by the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. Scholars had suggested over the years that Pollock must have seen the extraordinary mural cycle The Epic of American Civilization, which was painted by Orozco between 1932 and 1934 in the Reserve Reading Room at Dartmouth College's Baker Library. Francis O'Connor, in his magisterial Pollock catalogue raisonné (1978), allowed that Pollock could have seen the Dartmouth murals but pointed out that he had "no evidence that he saw them in the original."(1) In their Pulitzer Prize– winning biography of Pollock published in 1989, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith unearth such evidence: in 1936, Pollock traveled the three hundred miles by car from New York to Dartmouth College in the company of four others, his brother Sande, Bernie Steffen, Phil Goldstein (later known as Philip Guston), and Reginald Wilson (the biographers' source for the story).(2)

The image from the Dartmouth mural that presumably impacted Pollock the most was the imposing and savage Gods of the Modern World (panel 17 in the cycle), as is obvious from Pollock's decision, sometime following his Dartmouth visit, to make the untitled painting now known as Bald Woman with Skeleton, newly acquired by the Hood. There are also many other drawings and a number of oil paintings by Pollock that reference the Dartmouth murals, though rather less directly.

More a finished sketch than a finished painting, Bald Woman with Skeleton is a visceral, strongly conceived and executed work that probably dates to several years after the artist's Dartmouth visit. It shares its antiwar cry with Orozco's attack on the false modern gods as well as Picasso's Guernica, the response to the Spanish Civil War that so influenced Pollock. Bald Woman with Skeleton may in fact have been his response to the outbreak of World War II, by which time Pollock would have completely absorbed the Orozco imagery and been able to remake it in a composition of his own design and intemperate emotion.

In Bald Woman with Skeleton, Pollock "presents a scene of ritual sacrifice."(3) The violent image reverses the presentation of the skeleton in Orozco's mural while adding a crouching bald-headed woman and changing the skeleton itself into something animal-like. The melee of carnage and chaos is ferocious and presided over by a birdlike shape possibly comprised of two bare-ribbed human bodies. There are echoes of the darkest paintings of great European Old Masters, including Bosch, Rubens, and Goya (especially his Black Paintings), but the style is uniquely Pollock, full of vigor, primary colors, and rapidly laid down paints.

Interestingly, the serpent in the lower center is an obvious borrowing from the Dartmouth Orozco panel Snake and Spears, while the massed crowd of human figures encircling the woman and skeleton is reminiscent of the figures in the panel The Departure of Quetzalcoatl. Other relationships doubtlessly remain to be discovered. The most detailed published examination of this work is by Robert Storr in a book of studies produced in conjunction with the major Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1998–99.(4)

While Bald Woman with Skeleton is not a classic later Pollock, it is certainly a vital part of his formative years. This significant acquisition is in superb condition, a striking and unforgettable image imagined and executed by one of the most original of all painters.

1. Francis V. O'Connor and Eugene V. Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné, no. 59, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 177–78.
2. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (Aiken, S.C.: Woodward White, 1989), 298, 843.
3. Stephen Polcari, "Orozco and Pollock: Epic Transformations," American Art 6, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 50.
4. Robert Storr, "Comet: Jackson Pollock's Life and Work," in Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel, eds., Jackson Pollock: New Approaches (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 45–56.

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Written March 01, 2007 by Kristin Swan