Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Charles Demuth

Between pages 53 and 54, I briefly touch upon Charles Demuth's painting My Egypt (1927), which depicts a small "country elevator" (made out of reinforced concrete) that was built in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Demuth's hometown) only a few years previously. In her reading of the painting and its cryptic title, Karal Ann Marling argues that the ultimate reference is to the Great Pyramids of ancient Egypt ("My Eygyt: the Irony of the American Dream," Winterthur Portfolio, Spring 1980).

The problem for Marling’s reading of Demuth’s painting is that there is a mismatch: despite its dead-giveaway title, My Egypt does not resemble or even evoke a huge pyramid. And so, how to interpret the enigma of the title? Marling’s best guess is that Demuth was referring to his own death, his own passing into history, his own funereal monument: “The finality of these cool, pristinely modern shapes dictates that the Pennsylvania [grain] elevator would outlast Demuth.” But what if she’s got it backwards? Instead of memorializing his own death, Demuth might have been saying that the grain elevator in Pennsylvania – even though it was brand-new when he painted it – was already a kind of ruin. There is a possible parallel to America itself: never a young country; always already old and ruined.

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