The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

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MAY 2019 Issue
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Art World Doggerel

“Money is a kind of poetry.”

—Wallace Stevens

Scarlet Street (1945), directed by Fritz Lang, is a remake of the La Chienne (The Bitch,1931) by Jean Renoir. In Lang’s version, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a long-suffering cashier in a loveless marriage with Adele (Rosalind Ivan) and, as he tells a co-worker, “a Sunday painter.” The first time we see him painting, he is in the bathroom, trying to paint a flower that had been given to him by Katharine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett) the night before. Earlier, after walking his co-worker to the bus stop in the rain, Cross sees a man (Dan Duryea) smacking Kitty around, runs across the street, and hits him with his umbrella, temporarily knocking him out. Duryea is March’s boyfriend, a two-bit crook by the name of Johnny. Predictably, the older Cross is smitten by the young March.

This is the beginning of the downward spiral of a respectable but timid man. Cross steals $1000 from his job, where he has worked for 25 years. His reward was a gold pocket watch, which his boss, J. J. Hogarth, gave him on the night that he met Kitty. When Kitty sees the watch, she believes that Cross is a successful painter, whose work, she tells him, is probably more appreciated in France than in America, just as French painters are more prized in America than in their own country.

Cross uses the money to rent an apartment for Kitty and give himself a place to store his paintings, which Adele intends to throw out. When Johnny sees the paintings, which Cross has not signed, he brings an armful down to Greenwich Village, where people are selling art on the street, as they still do. He convinces one of the vendors, who is wearing a beret, of course, to sell the paintings, which he thinks are not worth very much. However, they soon attract the attention of an important art critic, Damon Janeway (Jess Barker).

Everything changes. At one point Adele sees the paintings, which have been signed “Katherine March,” in the window of an art gallery and later accuses her talentless husband of copying March’s art. Cross, who should be angry, does not correct Adele. He is so smitten with Kitty that he lets her receive the adulation. Later, Cross repeats his wife’s claim that he is a talentless artist in order to avoid being blamed for March’s murder—which in fact he did commit. The innocent Johnny is found guilty and sentenced to be executed in the electric chair.

Another twist: Cross is a great painter who isn’t willing to die for his art, which means he will spend the rest of his days walking the streets, haunted by guilt and permanently exiled from humanity. When two cops roust him from sleeping on a park bench, they tell him to go down to the Bowery.

Jean Renoir was the son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. In his Hollywood film, The Woman on the Beach (1947), Joan Bennett plays Peggy, who is married to Tod, a blind artist (Charles Bickford). The film, which lost money, was based on a novel by Mitchell A. Wilson, who was considered a major American writer in the Soviet Union but was less celebrated in America.

Edward G. Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania. His family spoke Yiddish. They immigrated to America in 1903. When he changed his name, the “G” stood for his original surname.

The exhibition Forty Paintings from the Edward G. Robinson Collection took place at the Museum of Modern Art (March 4 – April 12, 1953). There were three paintings by Renoir in the exhibition, along with The Black Clock (1869 – 1971) by Paul Cézanne, Le Père Tanguy (1887) by Vincent van Gogh, and Daily News (1935) by Yasuo Kuniyoshi. In 1956, Robinson was forced to sell his collection in order to pay for his divorce settlement. In 1957, shortly before the paintings were to be put up for auction, the multi-billionaire shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos, bought all of them for $3.5 million and installed them in the Hôtel de Chanaleilles, his freestanding townhouse in the 7th arrondissement.

Robinson’s collection was placed in various rooms, including a salon whose walls were covered in red velvet between carefully placed Corinthian columns beneath a gilt ceiling. In that room, Niarchos hung a painting by Georges Seurat, one by Goya, and the Pietà by El Greco that he’d bought for $400,000 to celebrate New Year’s Eve, according to Life magazine. This is the beginning of the art world as we know it today, where multi-billionaires buy assets and museums are often unwilling to distinguish between the literal and the liminal, doggerel and poetry.

Contributor

John Yau

John Yau's most recent books are Bijoux in the Dark (Letter Machine, 2018) and The Wild Children of William Blake

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

All Issues