In Gertrude and Christine , she is the authority, the center, dominating both the space and the cat. It is an image of her actual surroundings as well as a magical reworking of her environment to exert control over it. While neat and orderly, however, the room in Gertrude and Christine is almost empty, and even more importantly, impenetrable. The door in the back wall between Abercrombie and her cat does not open.
There are no hinges, hence no possibility of opening to forge a connection to the world outside. In the act of gaining control over her world Abercrombie has had to create boundaries between the room and the outside world. Although these austere and haunting rooms are occasionally richer and more replete with still-life elements, they remain secure enclosures with no communication to the world outside.
The repetition of this theme throughout her life parallels her unending struggle with the fear that assailed her—fear of being alone in the world, her inadequacy discovered and recognized. Her daughter describes Abercrombie, seemingly open and uninhibited, as guilt-ridden, particularly in relation to sex and drinking. Abercrombie felt unloved, first and foremost by her excessively reserved and undemonstrative mother. For example, in A Game of Kings , a crowned Abercrombie oversees two lions playing chess on a Victorian table in the foreground, while in the distance a tower-rook on a hill is visible.
Her love of games, her furniture, even her moon are in the painting. You just live according to their standards and one slip and you will just be beaten unmercifully. I have batches of friends but no-one to watch over me … in my solitude.
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She participated her first show in New York in at the Passedoit Gallery. She painted prodigiously, producing more than sixty paintings in She continued to enjoy success as an artist and as a personality even after her first marriage deteriorated and she was establishing her second, to writer Frank Sandiford, in the late forties. When Abercrombie and Livingston moved in, she decorated the three-story rowhouse with Victorian furniture upholstered in purple and beige striped fabric against dark grey walls.
However, the bright and cheerful interior became darker and darker as the decade progressed. Aside from a few unsatisfying attempts at abstraction early in her career and in the early fifties, she focused on several subjects which continued to appear during the course of her career with enormous variation but little aesthetic development. Like the interiors, the still lifes and landscapes become formulaic; only the details change. Although she worked in a loose and painterly style early in her career she soon settled on the precise style that characterizes most of the work from the early forties to the end of her life.
For example, the few paintings in which Dinah appears have a tentative quality. The only exception to this rule were the portraits, which she produced in great numbers at the beginning of her career, probably because she had willing models. Although she was a talented and perceptive portraitist, she abandoned this genre early, aside from an occasional commission, such as the portrait of Richard Purdy done in She continued, however, to produce many self-portraits through her entire career; among her final works was a pen-and-ink self-portrait in the collection of Hugh Cameron, dated to As her art became a means of dealing with her inner world, of introducing an order that was tenuous in her life, her interest in depicting others dramatically waned.
The objects which appear in the Self Portrait of My Sister are personal emblems which reappear elsewhere. Her black gloves, an allusion to her first drawing job, take on a life of their own with their jittery activity in the lower part of the painting, while her hat is adorned with a familiar bunch of grapes.
As we have already seen, even a still life with no ostensible emotional content, such as the tiny Bowl of Grapes , becomes a self-portrait by the inclusion of the bunch of grapes and the gloves. The white stoneware compote is another personal possession which makes frequent appearances in her work. We see it in the tiny Glove and Compote , in which the elements of the Bowl of Grapes are set against a dark sky with an Abercrombian sliver of moon.
In a witty and surreal touch, the empty glove holds a grape between thumb and forefinger. Her presence is more than implied in this still life. She appears, a solitary woman in a vast and barren landscape, in a picture hanging on the wall behind the table, a device Abercrombie often employed to extend or enhance the meaning of her images.
In typical naive fashion she later credited the image on the old Quaker Oats box with inspiring this idea. Her room as well is a self-portrait, whether or not she is physically present. In a painting of entitled Intermission Telephone , we see an image of a room furnished in typically sparse fashion with an overturned chair and table on which there is a pitcher, cup, and spoon. In this room Abercrombie has made a fairly explicit statement of her presence by the use of the picture within a picture. An attempt at communication, indicated by the unhooked telephone and what may be a note on the floor, has failed.
Her presence as a disembodied head in the portrait on the wall reinforces the fragmentation conveyed by the image. As in a number of early works for example, Blue Still Life of , the objects are arranged on a heavy wood table covered with a cloth. Head on a Plate functions as a psychic pendant to There on the Table, with its fragmentary headless body; they both include the ever-present cat and a toy jack.
The Interior of c. The most notable feature of this particular interior is the cracked and peeling plaster around the door. This kind of image—with its familiar severity and bleakness, its broom reminiscent of the compulsion to clean and order as well as magically transform, its door non-functional—is typical of Abercrombie. With the cracked walls indicating the deterioration of structure and the impossibility of escape, it is among the grimmer and more hopeless of her scenes.
Different furnishings are present in Picture in a Picture in a Picture of , in which a Victorian chaise placed in the corner and the picture on the wall repeats the image of the interior of the room, dooming the inhabitant to eternal confinement. The window is missing but a note has been slipped under the door. The note seems to allow for the possibility of communication with the outside, yet the tightly closed door and the picture on the wall render that communication incomplete at best.
A slightly smaller variation of this image is seen in Double Image of c. Sometimes the occupant of the room is identified as Countess Nerona, a reference to the heroine of a popular novel by Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel. Represented in exactly the same way as other female figures in her work, she serves as yet another alter-ego for Abercrombie, characteristically drawn from popalar fiction rather than a more elevated literary source.
Compared with the barren interiors already discussed, The Past and the Present of c. Fairly large for a work by Abercrombie, it is also filled with a greater number of objects in a richer variety of colors. Together with the revised title, The Past and the Present, the original title offers clues to the meaning of the painting. The house depicted in the painted landscape on the wall is the rowhouse at South Dorchester where Abercrombie moved just before she made this painting.
It is isolated in a barren expanse with a spiky tree and a single storm cloud. By making the past subject of the painting and the present the painted inset, she conveys the importance of the imagination as well as the mind in determining reality.
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In this case, the relative warmth and comfort represent the memory, perhaps embellished, of an earlier time in contrast with the present, represented in the picture on the wall. I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present, and future give the house different dymamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others stimulating one another. In Indecision , a blindfolded Abercrombie stands, like Hercules at the crossroads, between the familiar closed door now isolated in a moonlit landscape and hill dominated by the tower-rook that appear in many of her works.
According to Abercrombie, the two tents in Between Two Camps of represent her marriages; she was divorced from Livingston and married to Sandiford in Like her interiors, then, these enclosures represent psychic space. In Between Two Camps the white flag of surrender on the tent representing the marriage to Livingston is countered by the solid white stairs adjoining the black Sandiford tent on which the artist, waving a triumphant pink pennant, stands.
But the stairs, however solid, lead nowhere: either down the same way she came or off the deep end into oblivion. Two small pictures, Dilemma and Serpentina , both of , repeat these themes.
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The solitary figure in Dilemma is faced with the same non-functional stairway in a characteristic moonlit landscape. Doubts about what can be expected from marriage are also seen in Bride, from Abercrombie, dressed in traditional marriage garb, walks along a barely visible path in a barren landscape to a tiny white church in the distance; the single spiky and barren tree is the only other element in the landscape.
We can see the tower on the rock as an expression of the union of male and female for which she yearns; it recurs in almost the same form numerous times in her work, for example in A Game of Kings. In fact, The Courtship of , which includes a rare male figure clearly identifiable as Sandiford, conveys this in a poignant way. Abercrombie stands, arms raised in the air, as a masked Sandiford points a gun-like finger at her. Abercrombie claimed that she was the last thing that Sandiford, a small-time criminal before their marriage, ever stole.
The shell is another kind of enclosure; here it is a reference, like the door in Indecision, to the protection Abercrombie needs, even while craving closeness. Other images conveying confinement emerge in the forties. Here she is tenuously attached by the long train of her dress or sometimes a blindfold to the wall of a room or a single door in a landscape.
Again, her restraint is self-imposed, a crucial component of her lack of freedom. Abercrombie frequently protects the house by fortifying it, leaving out windows or doors, or rendering it inaccessible, as we see in the White House and Pump of The small white house nestled in a group of hills can only be reached by a long path and is shielded by spiky trees. The house is a perfect Halloween image: an old building, isolated in the landscape, flanked by a leafless tree.
In the deep blue sky, clouds partially cover a full moon, giving the sense of an impending storm, as well as night.
The house itself, a tall, narrow, red-brick structure with a slanted roof, has not one but three doors, all closed tight like the doors in her interiors. Most importantly, however, none of the three actually give access to the house. The painting is a statement about the protection Abercrombie needs and has from the world: her seeming openness and accesibility hide a strong, impenetrable fortification. The sadness that pervades the painting derives from the conflict between the desire for openness and the inability to achieve it.
When she married Sandiford on December 31, , at the home of friends Dolf and Emma Loeb, she entered a period of great inventiveness and productivity. She continued to participate regularly in shows at the Art Institute and the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago, and began to show again in galleries in Chicago and elsewhere. Of the fifty paintings exhibited at least half were sold.
In , a particularly prolific year, she had five one-woman shows and participated in four group shows; she produced in excess of paintings, an impressive figure even if we qualify it with the fact that some of the works were very small in scale. In , she began making tiny paintings which she had mounted and made into pins. These were highly salable items which had subjects drawn from her established repertoire of motifs: self-portraits, still lifes, cats, giraffes, the tree at Aledo. She began exhibiting at the annual outdoor art fair in Hyde Park from the time of its inception in , perhaps associating it with her enormously positive memories of the Grant Park Art Fair.
Setting her work up against the side of one of the three old Rolls-Royces she owned at various times, she became a character associated with the fair itself. In addition, she exhibited work at other local summer art fairs. One important new theme emerged in the fifties, when the Hyde Park neighborhood where Abercrombie lived became the site for urban renewal. It was common at that time to surround demolition sites with the doors taken from the building being torn down. Abercrombie was fascinated with the way these doors looked and they provided her with the only urban subject matter she ever addressed.
The Hyde Park Demolition Doors resonated with an already existing interest in doors which, as we have seen, have great symbolic significance in her work.
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