In Addition to its permanent exhibit covering the impact of President John F. Kennedy and his assassination, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza holds an enormous collection of rarely seen material including footage, photographs and oral histories. The museum periodically exhibits items from its collection in what it calls Collections Highlights to form a support or adjunct to the permanent exhibit. Currently showing is a selection from its collection of paintings of the life and times of JFK by well renowned folk artist Bernadine Stetzel.
As an avid JFK supporter, Stetzel can recall exactly what she was doing on Nov. 22, 1963. Devastated by the assassination of President Kennedy, it took the self-taught painter another five years before she felt able to begin painting scenes from JFKs life, ill-fated trip to Dallas, and the aftermath of the shooting. Over the next twenty years, Stetzel painted a total of 71 images of the life and times and death of JFK, all of which she recently donated to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza.
According to Stetzl, she had offered the museum the works a number of years ago, but they were declined. With the approach of the 50th anniversary of the assassination however, it seems that the museum has had a change of heart.
A selection of 17 of the works is now displayed on the seventh floor of the museum, and it is hoped that by next year, all 71 paintings may be shown there.
Stetzel is a self-taught painter who began producing when she was just twelve. Today, at age 86 she still paints every day. Early in her artistic life she experimented with realism, but rapidly developed her signature mode that she refers to as “imaginary or childlike”. This folksy style is generally referred to as naive art and in its pure form is usually produced by artists (like Stetzel) who have had little or no formal training. In terms of her background, and style, Stetzel fits well within the paradigms of the naïve art movement. However, her choice of subject matter (real historical and tragic events) is at odds with traditional naïve art which tends to focus on simple, childlike subjects.
Stetzel herself is quoted as saying her work is a cross between Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell and this seems a fair description to me. The naïve, folksy nature of Grandma Moses is combined with the depiction of real life and historical occurrences in the style of Rockwell. This gives us a highly personalized and human insight into the events which touched so many.
The paintings on show are not only of interest as extant examples of American folk art, but viewed in conjunction with the exhibits at The Sixth Floor Museum, are a sharp and diverting contrast to the photographs, news reel excerpts and archival information in the permanent exhibit. The colour, subjectivity and primitive, personalized humanity of the paintings is far removed from the largely monochrome objectified material of the sixth floor. However, both exhibits reinforce the effect JFK and his death had on the nation, the world and individuals. Both provide insight into his humanity, his enormous appeal and his broad impact on politics, popular culture and world history, in life and in death.
Whilst the paintings shown can be generally described as folk art or naïve in style, the artistic devices used vary from simple straightforward narrative depictions, to works infused with (fairly obvious) symbolism and more abstracted pieces with stylized design elements. Despite these differences, Stetzel’s signature use of colour, flattened picture planes and childlike style is palpable in all the displayed pieces.
Stetzel used press photographs (many from Life and Look magazines she collected at the time of the assassination), news reels and other information to carefully research and plan her series of images, and to help her accurately depict clothing styles, architecture and other salient details. She never visited Dallas so her images of the city and its people are gleaned purely from existing images and her creative imagination.
I found the display of the works slightly confusing in a number of ways, firstly, to my eyes, there was no signage or information to alert visitors to the presence of the exhibit on the seventh floor. Having visited the museum prior to the installation of these paintings I quickly gleaned that they must have been housed in a separate area to the permanent showing, but had to ask directions from staff to locate them. The works are hung in a beautifully restored section of the former school book depository, and the building’s original (recently restored ) sign is displayed at the entrance to the gallery, which links the two floors reasonably well and lends a gravitas and authenticity to the space. The images are not hung in chronological order and somehow I felt their display was a little under whelming and did not enhance their impact in any way. Having said that, it is great that this collection of paintings that is so tied to the events that occurred in and near this building have found a home here.
The first few paintings which depict early years of campaigning and presidency are the most typically naïve in style and composition – and have the air of being close approximations of photographs. Paintings of the Presidency vary greatly in style, there are some marked attempts at abstraction when the artist clearly is conveying her views about JFKs attributes and virtues. An example of this is Campaigning which depicts outstretched, clasped hands viewed form below in a fairly abstracted image. Painted over the top right of the piece is a quote from the famous “ask not what you can do for your country ….” speech.
The image entitled JFK and RFK is interesting in its use of colour – a washed out orange-pink rendering of the White House in front of which the brothers walk deep in conversation during the Cuban Missile crisis. The men are rendered as black shapes – almost silhouettes, but with discernible linear white features giving this part of the painting the appearance of a wood cut (another medium in which the artist works).
In The Motorcade, a narrative is established, with a rendering of Dallas Love Field and the presidential aeroplane shown to the left of the picture. This is crudely blended with the central image of the motorcade traveling through the stylized streets.
The Assassination is pictorially one of the more simplified images, and the foreshortening and flattening of the image that is typical in naïve art is particularly noticeable here. The elements of the image are more pared back here, and the effect is starker – an horrific moment frozen and flattened in time.
It is interesting to contrast the piece entitled The Funeral Cortege with earlier works such as JFK Tickertape Parade or Swearing In Ceremonies. In the earlier pieces, the upward momentum of shape, line and brushstrokes give an air of positivity and excitement. The colours are vibrant and the crowds are dressed in bright, individually realized outfits. This can be juxtaposed with The Funeral Cortege and it’s near monochromatic, solemn palate and sombre elongation of architectural features. The crowd has become featureless and each person is dressed similarly giving the impression of nameless, faceless grief.
The Gravity of The Funeral Cortege is somewhat alleviated in the painting entitled Lying in State which depicts the presidential casket lying in state at The Capitol as viewed from high above. The audience is removed from the sorrow of the moment as we soar above the casket which is dwarfed by distance and the size of the great room. The depiction of formalized and symmetrical architectural elements of the domed ceiling as viewed from above lend this painting a highly stylized air despite the fact that it is actually a fairly realistic rendering.
When asked in the oral history video interview that accompanies the collection of paintings now held at the museum whether the experience of painting these images was cathartic, Stretzel replied “No, It made me feel worse”. She then went on to clarify that painting the happy events was just as evocative, bringing back a flood of positive memories. This I think summarizes the exhibit perfectly – these images are an intensely personal response to the events (and the man). Due to their naïve style and simple approach, these fairly primitive images may perhaps evoke in us a more individual and subjective response than that which we might have had just viewing the archival material displayed on The Sixth Floor Museum.