Sunday, June 6, 2021


Chagall at St. John's

What were the classes denominated at St. John the Evangelist School in Winthrop during my time there, circa 1957 - 1965?   Religion, English or Reading, Mathematics or Arithmetic, History, Geography, Music and, in the upper grades, French of a sort.

And then there was Art, which in the main demanded of us that we create works of our own, using Crayola crayons or water paints, the kind that came in a little tin and got all over you, but washed off pretty readily when you got home.  We were evaluated in Art on the basis of how much what we created looked like "the real thing."  In this I failed, not because I was a visionary frustrated by the aesthetic narrow-mindedness of the nuns  (though there was that), but rather by a simple lack of any artistic talent whatsoever.

Beyond our own creations, the nuns had few tools to introduce us to the realm of genuine visual artistic expression.  Since everything at St. John's, including mathematics and history, was filtered through the lens of Roman Catholicism, one might have thought that the nuns would have bombarded us with images from the Sistine Chapel or with saints as they were portrayed by El Greco.  But I remember no such thing.  Rather, I remember only a very few -- three or four -- "flash cards" that were handed out to be passed around the 55 or 60 kids in the class as evidence of what art was supposed to be.

One image in particular stays with me.  It struck me with its mystery, which no doubt is why I remember it still.   It was a cow that was painted by Marc Chagall, a purple cow with very evocative and sensitive eyes.  But what did it mean?   To my knowledge, there were no purple cows in real life, so why did he make the cow purple?   And why did it seem so human?  Why did this Chagall person not follow the dictates of the nuns and just make something with pen and ink or with brush and oils that looked just like a real cow?  Wasn't that the point of art?

Alas, the nuns themselves were ill educated in such things.  They didn't give us any context for the mysterious flash cards because they themselves had no understanding of any context that might have been supplied.

I looked at the purple cow.  I took note that "this was art," because it might be on a test.   Then I handed it on to Anne Marie Askovich or Mia Paone, who drew their own conclusions and, who knows, maybe later even drew their own genuine and authentic art, influenced if only subliminally by the great Chagall?

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