Categories: Essays

Two Young Men and Two Paintings on a Hot Summer Day

“In the air-cooled museum Phil spent ten minutes in front of a portrait of Jean Cocteau by Modigliani. . . .Then we both stopped in front of Tchelitchew’s Cache-Cache and looked at that for a while.” And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, 2008, (174).

The morning after he murders his long-term friend, Ramsay Allen, Phillip Tourian and his other friend, Mike Ryko, spend the hot summer day at bars, a 42nd Street penny arcade, the New York Public Library park, a movie, another bar, and then the Museum of Modern Art.

Modigliani’s portrait is soothing and elegant and presents the young, neatly-combed, well-dressed subject with eyebrows slightly askance sitting upright in a chair with hands serenely folded. He looks not unlike a young man sitting across from a lawyer or district attorney or influential uncle or Columbia dean.
The Russian-born Tchelitchew’s surreal Cache-Cache (Hide and Seek) is more unsettling with its anxiously searching mother as subject. This is a large, six-feet-square painting and Tchelitchew’s most significant work. It was painted in 1940-1942, so it was a new painting for the two young men viewing it in 1945 when the story takes place. Much of the artist’s work suggests “psychosexual conflict and homoerotic longing” i and that was exactly the nature of the tangled relationship between Phillip and Allen and the murder. As Will Dennison (William Burroughs) writes in the first chapter, when Al and Phillip “get together something happens, and they form a combination which gets on everybody’s nerves.” So the relationship was combustible to a violent finale.
How both of these paintings fit into this story is a deft example of the perception of both writers. I tend to disagree with critics who deem And the Hippos as not quite worthy. Not only that, but critics of the Beats, particularly critics of Jack Kerouac, seem to miss his marvelous humor. Burroughs, it almost goes without saying, is hilarious in his dry, no-nonsense way. This is the story of a murder but it’s entertaining. The book ends with Will relating, “Phillip’s uncle fixed everything up and had the boy committed to the state nuthouse.” Danny, Will’s gangster acquaintance—an arsonist wanted by the FBI—concludes, “Well, he can go into politics when he gets out.”
The end of a season, the end of a life, the end of a young man’s freewheeling ways at summer’s end—always a sad event—but the paintings remain unchanged on museum walls.

 

i Mendelsohn, Meredith. (August 27, 1998). Pavel Tchelitchew: Landscape of the Body. ArtNet Magazine. www.artnet.com/magazine

GK Stritch

GK Stritch is a contributor to Beatdom and the author of CBGB Was My High School. The book is available at the St. Mark's Bookshop, New York City, and amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

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