Jonathan F. Walz

The Act of Portrayal and the Art of Dying: Charles Demuth 'Faces' Mortality

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In his late thirties American modernist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) suffered a succession of diabetic crises; the grim prognosis that he received suddenly brought the artist face to face with his own mortality. Under this (medical) sword of Damocles, Demuth voyaged to Europe. There he determined to turn and to meet, rather than attempt to evade, his fate: to return to the United States, to suffer productively, and - by doing so - to «add to the American scene». Demuth's Lutheran upbringing provided an important theological framework in which the artist's subsequent physical and psychological 'resurrection' manifested. In his final fifteen years of life - unexpectedly extended through breakthrough insulin treatments - the artist sublimated his annihilation anxiety into key works of his late career. Abandoning a self-serving attitude and profligate lifestyle, Demuth instead produced a coherent body of visual meditations on 'last things', especially a cycle of conceptual portraits of friends.

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