Over Easy

Milk and Eggs cracks open the marvelous rewards of a difficult technique.

Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950 Akron Art Museum, 70 East Market Street, Akron Through September 1, 330-376-9185
Sex and the city: Paul Cadmus's "Playground."
Sex and the city: Paul Cadmus's "Playground."
Kathryn Wat hustles groups of school kids past a Paul Cadmus painting. The associate curator at the Akron Art Museum doesn't want calls from angry parents. The shirtless teen in the foreground of "Playground" (1948) stares at the viewer as he thrusts his hands down his unfastened pants, manhandling his bare buttocks. To the left, a busty girl in a tight shirt teases a boy's mouth with her erect nipple. Phallic imagery abounds, too: baseball bats in strategic spots, bulging crotches, and a hand-in-pocket that suggests an erection.

The official museum spin is that "Playground" depicts urban youths who are "restless" and "agitated" because they're cooped up in a crowded city. "Playground" is really a candy store of pretty boys in assorted physiques and ethnic flavors, with a dame and dash of social commentary to get the critics off the scent. When Cadmus painted pictures of sexually robust men and women, the men usually want each other, not the chicks. What's really surprising is how Cadmus painted his lads: in egg tempera, a medium associated with the religious paintings and altarpieces made by 13th- to 15th-century Italian artists, like the monk Fra Angelico.

Cadmus was part of a slow-going rediscovery of tempera painting that began in the early 1900s, near the end of the American Renaissance (1876 to 1917) -- a period when artists and architects were obsessed with the styles and techniques of Renaissance art. The tempera revival gained momentum in the late '20s and early '30s, when more art schools began teaching the difficult technique. Then, artists for the Federal Arts Project (a branch of the WPA) began using egg tempera for their mural studies, because its dry, matte surface resembled fresco, the method used for mural painting on plaster.

Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950, now on view at the Akron museum, features 56 paintings by 45 artists who participated in the resurrection of this ancient technique. The enlightening show brings together images of rural and urban America, working women and steelworkers, stuffy theatergoers and ladies' temperance groups. These stylistically diverse works -- related by the common thread of tempera -- were painted by well-known artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Isabel Bishop, Arthur Dove, and Jacob Lawrence. And of course, N.C. Wyeth and his son, Andrew Wyeth, who is now the undisputed master of egg tempera.

With a rare focus on exploring an artistic process, Milk and Eggs devotes significant space to displaying the handbooks, tools, materials, and methods of tempera painting. A silent, subtitled video, The Cookery of Art, explains the "milk" and "eggs" in the exhibit's title. Tempera is made by mixing powdered pigments with egg yolk and water (oil paints' binder is linseed oil). Less frequently, a milk protein (casein) is used as a binder. Paintings are created by building up layers of translucent paint -- a process that can take months to complete, which is why few artists use the process today. But the payoffs are great: vibrant colors that last for centuries (unlike oils, which darken and discolor) and a magical inner glow.

The Wyeths learned the technique from Peter Hurd, a New Mexican known for his vibrant Southwestern landscapes. Hurd's "Portrait of Mina Curtiss" (1939) shows off tempera painting's finest attribute -- its inner luminosity -- achieved by allowing white ground to glow through translucent layers of paint. (Gesso, a white mixture of glue and powdered-zinc white, is applied in many layers to the surface before painting begins.) In "Raccoon" (1958), a portrait of a hound dog in a barn, Andrew Wyeth abraded layers of paint to achieve the weathered effect of an old building. He created the ray of light that shines on the dog's head by scraping off paint until he reached the white gesso. In tempera painting, light glows from a source within the picture, rather than from highlighted surfaces.

In this exhibition, paintings are organized in groups based on the schools or studios where the artists learned the technique. The show charts the revival's American origins at the Yale School of Fine Arts and documents its haphazard spread through the Art Students League (New York), Kansas City Institute of Art, and N.C. Wyeth's studio in Pennsylvania. We also see how artists sometimes tailored the traditional technique to better suit their modern styles. For example, Dove's "Autumn" (1935) is an abstraction designed to evoke the sensation of the season, not create a literal portrait of it. The artist applied his autumn colors directly with a brush, rather than using the traditional cross-hatching technique.

By the early 1930s, American artists had split into three broad camps: regionalists, urban (or social) realists, and abstractionists. Realists preferred tempera because of its crisp matte finish -- more populist-looking than the aristocratic glossy surface of an oil. Robert MacDonald Graham Jr., a student of Benton's, painted "Jessie and Greenberry Ragan" (1940) when he was just 19. Ostensibly a portrait of family friends in their Kansas farmhouse, the psychologically astute narrative hints at trouble in regionalism's rural paradise. A seated gray-haired couple struggle over possession of a photo album. On an opened page is a black-and-white photo that quotes Édouard Manet's famous "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" (1863), in which two clothed men and a nude lady picnic in the country. The image appears to be of a young man sandwiched between two reclining nude ladies.

The wife's finger is poised, ready to turn the page, but the husband grabs her wrist. He wants to linger. These are subtleties detected by viewing actual paintings, not reproductions. So hurry up. Only three weeks left to see this captivating show.

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