In a different world, Tennessee Williams might have been better known as a painter than as a playwright.
Of course, that’s assuming that his artistic talents in that other world were on the same level as his literary talents in this one. Judging from the works on view in an uneven but thoroughly charming show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Williams seems to have wound up in the right place after all.
But that doesn’t mean his paintings aren’t worth seeing. On the contrary, the paintings in “Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter” are a fascinating adjunct to his written works — which, after all, weren’t always at the same level of masterpieces like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie,” either.
Organized by collector David Wolkowsky and the Key West Art & Historical Society, the paintings in the show are intimate in both size and subject matter. All but two are from the collection of Williams’ close friend Wolkowsky, to which the Ogden has added two works from their permanent collection as well as a digital slide show of Williams memorabilia and an iconic photographic portrait of the artist by Yousuf Karsh.
Williams began painting in the 1960s, around the period when general consensus held that his best literary work was already behind him. Although he is said to have painted some works expressly for sale, most of his canvasses (including several of the paintings in the Ogden show) were made for friends and lovers.
As a result, the show is engaging on a particularly personal level, even if the paintings themselves don’t rise to the same artistic heights as his plays and stories.
The show can be divided into two sections, roughly corresponding to Williams’ public literary persona and to his private romantic and sexual life.
In the former category are Williams’ homages to his literary heroes Rimbaud and Genet, as well as a vituperative depiction of his literary counterpart and nemesis Truman Capote as a machine gun-wielding baby in diapers, leaving bloody trails of bullet hole-ridden bodies in his wake. It’s a provocative and disturbing image that conveys more of an overall mood than a coherent narrative, much like many of Williams’ more experimental (and usually critically derided) plays he wrote in the decades preceding his death in 1983.
Meanwhile, one of the more lighthearted images depicts the title character of Williams’ novel (and later film) “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” with her Italian lover-for-hire, recalling a line of dialogue from the story: “Isn’t it odd … how women of our age begin all at once look for beauty in our male partners?”
But it’s the paintings in the other half of the show that give a more complete sense of Williams as a private individual.
Several of the paintings here are portraits. Two particularly affectionate ones depict Williams’ friend Walkowsky and the actor Michael York, while “Citizen of the World III” represents, in the words of the wall label, “the kind of guy Williams was looking. (The same label not-so-helpfully explains that “‘Citizen of the World’ is a term of approval.’”)
Another small portrait of an anonymous young man is described as one in which Williams memorialized an object of his affections, though whether or not that affection was requited is unknown.
Chances are it wasn’t. Williams wasn’t exactly lucky in love, and some of the paintings, like the one at the entrance of the exhibition depicting a ghostlike figure walking down an empty nighttime street, communicate an almost heartbreaking loneliness.
Evan Williams’ attitude toward his own sexuality (he did not acknowledge or act upon his same-sex attraction until he was well into his 20s) finds a poignant expression in his paintings. Witness the impressively muscled but disconnected and isolated nude male figures in “Nus” versus the spiritually idealized heterosexual lovers in “Le Derniere Embrasse“.
Unguarded moments like these are well served by Williams’ naive style, which might most kindly be described as that of a Sunday painter who’s looked at a lot of Chagall. But the awkward compositions and draftsmanship communicate an honesty of feeling.
With Williams’ written works and biographical details as subtext, “Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter” manages to create a portrait of Williams as an individual to set alongside the more familiar one of Williams as a literary icon.