Tennessee Williams: a portrait of the playwright as a painter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 7:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 7:11pm

When Tennessee Williams showed up early afternoons at David Wolkowsky's home near Key West, Florida, he would have three things to help get him to nightfall: "A bottle of red wine, Billie Holiday tapes and paint," his friend recalls.

Out of that concoction came paintings, dozens over 30 years, that the poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright gave to friends, lovers and neighbours. Now, 32 years after his death at the age 71 in 1983, his works have been collected for a show in New Orleans, one of his adopted homes. They provide insight into Williams' sensual dreamscape that he extracted through images of Christian crosses, water and flesh.

"There's a reason he didn't just take photographs, and there's a reason why he didn't write about these things," says William Andrews, executive director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where "Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter" runs until May 31. "The act of painting is an intimate mirror. I think he liked the reflection he discovered in this work."

Williams first visited Key West in 1941, when he was on the verge of his most productive and acclaimed periods. Three years later, The Glass Menagerie would establish him as one of the most original, and poetic, voices on the American stage; more of his classic works quickly followed, most notably A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The success allowed Williams to buy a modest home in Key West which, until his death, would serve as playground and refuge. He lived there with his partner, Frank Merlo, but after Merlo died of lung cancer in 1963, Williams vanished into a fog of depression that he tempered with alcohol and prescription drugs.

Writing, however, never failed him, as attested by the voluminous body of plays, novels, poetry, short stories, screenplays and teleplays he left behind. But painting was largely seen by Williams' Key West friends as an outlet that was more personal and that offered true creative freedom. He rarely sold his works: some were discarded the day they were completed, and others were given to those in his inner circle.

The paintings reflect not just the tropical yellows, orange and reds of the environment in which they were created, but also French poetry, satire and dark irony.

In A Child's Garden of Roses (1976), a man and a woman stand on a beach bleeding from rose-coloured hearts while a baby parades nearby waving a pistol. The baby has the head and shoulders of Truman Capote, with whom Williams had a long feud.

Le Solitaire (1976) shows a figure outlined in white, lost in the night between two buildings. In the distance is the hazy blur of a palm tree, but he can't move towards it; he can only stare.

Andrews says that although Williams' paintings are often described as naive or primitive, they are sophisticated for their rich expressionism. "I look at the paintings as an opportunity for the author to put into the art form things he would not put on the stage, but things that were important to him," the museum director says.

Williams' homosexuality, rarely overt in his plays, flourished in his art. Male nudes are celebrated, but there also is struggle. In The Tidings Brought to Mary at Far Rockaway (1975), a naked man is at the door, adorned with a yellow halo and rays shooting out from his body. He holds a cross to a man and woman, also naked, who face away from him, their faces dull and blank.

Wolkowsky, 95, now owns all of the works in the exhibition except for two that are on permanent loan to the Key West Art and Historical Society, which plans to take the show to other cities.

But the comfort Williams found in Key West could not sustain him: in his 2014 biography of Williams, John Lahr writes that the playwright fled Key West in turmoil because his new work was not connecting with the public. He died three months later in a New York hotel room.

With these paintings finally assembled, Williams is back in the Keys, the sun is still shining and soon it will be time for a swim.

The Washington Post