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Kurt Delbanco Paints Max Eastman

by Christoph Irmscher

(from Face to Face,
published by the National Portrait Gallery, November 7, 2017)

In 1968, one year before his death, during a period in his life already overshadowed by intense anxiety and mounting health problems, the writer and poet Max Eastman sat for the painter Kurt Delbanco. Eastman’s eighth-floor apartment, where his wife Yvette continued to live until she died in 2011, with its high ceilings and large windows, was perfect for the occasion. There would have been ample light, and the New York traffic would have been never more than a distant rumble, sirens, blaring car horns, the shouts of passersby muffled into pleasant indistinctness, faint reminders of a world that had become increasingly irrelevant to Eastman.

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between two men: the sociable, quirky, round-faced and cheerful Kurt, a “practical optimist,” in his own words, who charmed all who met him, and the occasionally self-righteous, often brooding, and permanently disappointed ex-socialist Max. Through Kurt’s son Nicholas, a novelist Max had taken under his wings, the two men had become friends. When you take someone’s portrait, too much familiarity can be an obstacle, a photographer friend of mine once told me when I had asked him for exactly that favor. Portraits are complicated transactions, to be sure, first between the artist and the sitter, but also between the viewer and the portrait itself. Mental or actual, a portrait is an intellectual process. Proust’s narrator, in Swann’s Way, observes: “We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him . . . they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope.” In the end, Proust suggests, it is our own ideas of a person that we recognize when we see his or her face portrayed, a face from which we leach particular and unique distinction.

Yet Delbanco’s Eastman portrait resists this common form of painterly identity theft. Its authority and its ingenuity lie precisely in the artist’s skill in blending his thoughts with ours as viewers, and thereby helping to uncover the distinctive thoughts of the subject himself. This is a rare achievement in portraiture, both the ambition and the apogee of the genre.

Kurt Delbanco was born in 1909 into a family of Jews that had left Venice centuries earlier. His father ran a successful bristle-trading business in Hamburg. An optimist like his son, he underestimated the danger posed by the Nazis, who relieved him of his position as a lay judge. He died of cancer within the year. Kurt was able to escape to London in 1936, where he reopened the family business and got married, though other family members were not so lucky. An uncle took arsenic and an aunt threw herself out the window when they came for her.

In 1948, Kurt transferred his family to Westchester County, NY, where he created a new life for himself, in which art in all its forms and with all its pleasures played a greater and greater role. In Hamburg, he had studied painting with Willem Grimm, a member of the group known as the “Hamburg Secessionists,” whose bold sense of color and composition Samuel Beckett praised when he visited the city; a later teacher was the vigorous social realist Jack Levine. Kurt would paint in a small studio above the garage, safely sequestered from his wife, who loathed the smell of turpentine: scenes tenderly recalled by Nicholas Delbanco in the novel What Remains (2000), a thinly fictionalized tribute to his father.

In a review of one of his exhibitions, the New York Times lauded Kurt as a “wayward, maverick spirit.” This is indeed how he comes across in the documentaries about his work, one of them self-produced, in which he—an amiable, suspender-clad jester-philosopher exhilarated by his own capacity for wisdom—peers quizzically at the camera through large round horn-rimmed glasses as he explains that art, if embraced fully but not taken too seriously, will make you a better person. Kurt was a representational painter at heart, and he would continue to draw portraits throughout his life.

Beside the Eastman painting, the National Portrait Gallery also owns Kurt’s drawing of Thurgood Marshall from 1991, and his oil portrait of New York City’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, is held, appropriately, by the Museum of the City of New York. But Kurt also cheerfully experimented with abstraction and conceptual art, inviting viewers to take part in his work by moving Velcro shapes across his canvases or rearranging the parts of his public sculptures. And he created furniture, notably a series of large, fantastically colored clocks he designed for mass production in 1980. Whatever he undertook was marked by a deeply humane appreciation for other people and a desire to entertain the viewer—hard-won, no doubt, for a man with his family history.

Max Eastman was eighty-five when he sat for Kurt. Even in old age, he was still an attractive man. His longtime lover, the British actress Rosalinde Fuller, was still pelting him with seductive letters in which she promised to hold him and kiss him the next time they met. Another one of his admirers averred that, with Max in it, any wheelchair would look like a throne. But the Max we meet in Kurt’s picture is not the stuff of women’s dreams. He seems rigid, stiff, uncomfortable. His hair, white since his early twenties, is uncharacteristically unkempt, as if he had brushed it quickly after waking up from a nap. Did Kurt know about the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Max had received earlier that year? His face is a darkening shade of burnt sienna. Throughout his life, Max was proud of his tan. An accomplished swimmer and diver when young, he continued to seek the sunlight whenever he could. He would spend his summers on the Vineyard and his winters in Barbados, even as his worsening physical condition made travel difficult. Sunbathing was an erotic pleasure for him, to be enjoyed when one was fully naked, one’s body pressed into the warm sand of the beach, with the rolling sounds of the ocean as accompaniment. Although he would delightedly seize the clothes of visitors, urging them to join him on the small pebbly beach that belonged to his Vineyard house, Max disliked the term “nudism,” since it suggested that there was something wrong with being naked. In Kurt’s portrait, however, he appears almost deliberately overdressed. His body rounded by too much food, he is wearing a shirt and tie, a thick, earth-red sweater, and a jacket the color of raw umber. The layers created by Kurt’s brush add contour, color, and substance to Max’s clothes, daubing them with flecks of green, brown, blue, rust-red and white. His attire becomes a protective armor of sorts: strong, impenetrable, unyielding. No hands are visible.

Nicholas Delbanco explains that his father felt he wasn’t any good at drawing hands, which is why he left them off even in his self-portraits. But here their absence works: it draws our attention to Kurt’s representation of Max’s face, a complex affair. The right side, half turned away from us, appears inflexible, impassive, petrified. By contrast, the left half, the one turned toward us, is more animated—note the cocked eyebrow, the pronounced, deep line leading from the corner of his mouth up to his nose, the left eye which seems almost squinty, as if Max were trying to sneak a look down his own cheek—a touch of self-irony perhaps, a barely articulated protest against the rigidity of his posture. Faces were landscapes to Kurt, his son said. He knew his way around them so well that he didn’t have to think about them as he painted. For what really mattered to him was the landscape that lay underneath.

There are many portraits of Max Eastman, drawings, a handful of paintings, and countless photographs, professional ones as well as those taken by friends, wives, and lovers. They fill several boxes of Max’s papers at Bloomington’s Lilly Library. Eliena Krylenko Eastman, his second wife and a formidable painter herself, once painted Max in a posture very much like the one he adopted for Kurt years later, seated in a chair, his tie at an angle, the eyes turned inward. Until recently, the portrait hung in her studio on the Vineyard, where things were left as they had been when she died in 1957. None of the existing portraits shows Max Eastman the way Kurt Delbanco does: hardened into a reluctant monument to his own past ambitions, the former activist condemned to inaction—by the mistakes he made, by old age, by debilitating illness— a torso stiffening into statuedom. Kurt’s portrait is an effective antidote to the dismissive narrative of the glib political turncoat Max Eastman, traitor to the Left, misguided ally of the Right.

Kurt gives us the later Max the way I encountered him when, digging through reams of letters, drafts, and journal entries, I was writing his biography: as a man beset by worry—worried that he had wasted his life, worried that he had turned into a hack. Although he relished the payments, he was at best an unenthusiastic contributor to Reader’s Digest, chafing under the silly restrictions that came from editorial headquarters in Pleasantville, New York. His atheism and unabashed hedonism made him a bad fit for his new conservative friends. He hankered after the glory days of Village radicalism when he was in charge of his own writing and almost single-handedly transformed an entire periodical, The Masses, into an alluring image of what political writing should look like: sleek, incisive, acerbic, irreverent, cosmopolitan, a thing of lethal beauty, as Woodrow Wilson’s government quickly perceived when it moved to ban The Masses.

Stalin’s blood-soaked rule had made Max lament his past political views but not the hold he once had over people’s minds. Kurt’s brush reveals the steep price Max paid for deciding, as the century kept betraying him, that he owed loyalty mostly to himself. It depicts the damage done by his desire—hailed as courageous by some and dismissed as foolish by others—to live his life precisely the way he wanted to, unimpeded by state interference, political ideology, or conventional moral codes. “I ask no thing, / Of God or King, / But to clear away His shadow,” Max had intoned in an early poem, in which he imagined himself as a kind of modern Diogenes. Yet governments, politicians, and colleagues kept stepping between him and the sun. Terms such as “left” and “right” had now lost their meaning for him, Max said sometime in the 1950s. Kurt’s painting, subtly, powerfully, hauntingly, records what happened to him.

In the last months before his death, Max was beset by the fear that one day he might no longer “wake up as Max,” as his sister-in-law reported in her journal. Uncannily, that is precisely what took place. In mid-March 1969, when he was vacationing in his beloved Barbados, a massive stroke ended Max Eastman’s conscious life. His large body carried on for a few days, fully condemned to the kind of rigidity anticipated in Kurt Delbanco’s painting. On March 26, the man Time magazine had once hailed as a “lusty Lion of the Left,” was dead. A few weeks later, his ashes were delivered to Yvette, who, not knowing what to do with them, placed them in one of his file cabinets. Kurt sent a condolence note to Yvette marked by the same sweet, sympathetic understanding that had shaped his portrait: “Barbara and I have been more than sad. . . . I only hope that in the last days he did not have to suffer too much.” Never one to impose himself on others, Kurt added that he could only hope he had earned the right to call himself one of Max’s friends. “We try to share your grief and sadness."

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