The Hound of Heaven
Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, WA - To Nov 15
This 23-panel series of paintings by the Boston School painter R.H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) is one of the most extraordinary and confounding achievements of American art. With its roots in late-Victorian decadent literature, based on a poem by Catholic mystic and opium addict Francis Thompson (1859-1907), The Hound of Heaven touches on an amazing range of mythic, psychological and religious sources. Varying interpretations have been discussed since its completion in 1956, after a 15-year gestation. The style is representational but fantastic, like the science-fiction film Dune.
Gammell had served in World War I and studied in Paris before that, but by the time of the Second World War he suffered a nervous breakdown, perhaps due to his recognition of the horrors of the conflict. During his recovery, he read Thompson’s poem about a “protagonist” chased by evil spirits only to be rescued by ambiguous beings with whom he experiences adventures in alternately horrible and sublime settings. Like Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1816 poem induced by his consuming laudanum (another opiate), The Hound of Heaven confronts the reader with unimaginable tales of terror and ultimate resolution. Compelling but ambiguous, the scenes are terrifying without being surrealistic.
The artist carefully selected 23 passages from Thompson’s poem to illustrate in large-scale oils. The works are filled with astrological and religious symbols, along with muscular male nudes in pursuit of and flight from the indeterminate demon. Is it Satan? Or God? Or a forgiving Jesus Christ? All this is left open to the viewer’s imagination, although Maryhill curator Steven Grafe offers a thoughtful explanation of each panel’s symbols and imagery. The result is an unforgettable ex- perience of an artwork that deserves greater attention.