Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Secret of Pirate Lafitte’s Gold

“O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can hear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire and behold our home!" 
–Lord Byron, 1814, The Corsair

By 1974 George Rodrigue pursued a unique, self-invented style of American genre painting, typified by hard edges and strong designs.  He interpreted the landscapes and legends of the Cajun culture with expressive symbolism.  His oak trees are abstract shapes forming the uppermost border of a bright sky, reinforcing positive shapes and patterns in his stylized canvas world.

The mysterious woman in The Secret of Pirate Lafitte’s Gold (1974, 30x36) guards a treasure hidden within the hollow of the tree.  Conflicting tales of Jean Lafitte and his gold abound, and for years treasure hunters dug up islands and, at one point, drained a lake, in search of the booty.

Far from the terrifying reputation of today’s pirates, Jean Lafitte resembles in legend (forgive me) Jack Sparrow, in his relentless pursuit of treasure, freedom, and the ‘winning side.’  He gained a reputation beyond thief and smuggler, known for sparing the lives of his captives and, most famously, ensuring Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

(pictured, In Search of the Gold of Jean Lafitte, circa 1983; notice Chef John Folse's famous restaurant, now burned, in the background; the painting currently hangs at Folse's Lafitte's Landing Restaurant at Bittersweet Plantation)

For their allegiance and assistance, Lafitte and his men received full pardons and generous payment, a treasure, according to a legend recounted by fishermen and trappers since the early 1900s, still buried within a large oak tree at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River. 

Lafitte’s followers, however, protected the gold.  As the pirates died, their ghosts remained.  It was from this legend that Rodrigue fabricated his image, a female spirit formed from his imagination, still guarding the oak.

According to family legend, George Rodrigue’s Uncle Boutte, who married his mother’s sister, a Courrege, was a direct descendant of Pirate Lafitte.  The family spoke of the treasure often when George was a child in New Iberia. 

“Growing up I remember the Bouttes complaining that by the time they find Lafitte’s gold there will be so many heirs that nobody will get much of anything.” - G.R.

In 1984 George addressed the legend again with A Sea Chest of Secrets (40x30), painted for the book Bayou, a collection of ghost stories that also includes the loup-garou, the first Blue Dog.

The painting illustrates three periods in time.  Lafitte, still living, sits upon his gold at the edge of the river.  Mid-canvas, his grave, an above ground tomb, hides the gold beneath the same tree (although, according to popular accounts, he was wounded during a battle and buried at sea).  The top of the painting reveals no sign of Lafitte, his tomb, or the gold, reinforcing the mystery of both the pirate’s fate and that of his treasure.

Throughout the painting, the river and sky blend as one, a typical Rodrigue artifice that further blurs both the passage of time and the ambiguity of a legend.


-please join me on facebook for more paintings, photographs and stories

-also this week, a tribute to Pablo Picasso, featuring Rodrigue’s guitar-collage inspired by the Modern master, linked here for Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Cajun in California

It was ten years ago that George Rodrigue built his studio in the hills of Carmel Valley, California.  Since that time, although we live most of the year in New Orleans, ninety percent of his work comes from this peaceful home on the West Coast, an escape from everything but nature and painting.

-click photos to enlarge-

It was in this studio that he painted God Bless America on the night of September 11th, 2001.  He conceived of and painted both the Hurricanes and Bodies Series on this hill.  And it was here that he spent most of 2009 painting an historical tribute to the ‘men who won the war,’ Eisenhower and Higgins, a large-scale commission for the National World War II Museum. (pictured below unfinished, and detailed in a Veterans Day post next month)

Why California?, people ask.

(Pictured, George Rodrigue on Highway 1 near Malibu while attending the Art Center College of Design, 1966)

“I first fell in love with California when I went to art school in Los Angeles.  It was exciting because of the new art coming out of that area.  I discovered the Monterey Peninsula early on.  The little town of Carmel-by-the-Sea was full of artists and had a large concentration of studios and galleries.

“I loved the idea from the beginning of one day painting in Carmel and showing my art.  Thanks to the success of the gallery in New Orleans, I fulfilled that dream twenty-five years later.”

(pictured, last week on Highway 1 near Big Sur)

This year the Rodrigue Gallery in Carmel, California celebrates its twentieth year.  We moved recently to a larger location two blocks from our old one, described as the West side of Dolores between Ocean and 7th, in a town without addresses.

I worked at the Carmel gallery, then known as Galerie Blue Dog, for six years in the early 1990s, returning to Louisiana when George and I married.  Along with my co-workers, Sandra Crake (now in New Orleans) and Mary Threadgill (still in Carmel), we enjoyed the exciting early Blue Dog years, including lines at the door following our grand opening, thanks to George’s long-time friend Chef Paul Prudhomme, who cooked Cajun food in the gallery for the town.

We celebrated together when the Blue Dog landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.  We appeared out of business for months (and we raised prices) as George painted inventory following the buying frenzy accompanying his Absolut art ads.  We introduced the seaside community not only to a Cajun artist and Cajun food, but also to Mardi Gras, the Saints, and LSU, with related paintings, parties, and decorated windows.

(pictured, outside Rodrigue’s Carmel studio, 2008)

This year we hired a California native who worked for many years at a nearby gallery.  Jenny Johnson made her first trip ever to Louisiana this summer, where she visited not only George’s gallery, but also “Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River” at the LSU Museum of Art, the Blue Dog CafĂ©, and our new GRFA Education Center.

“After twenty years,” writes Jenny, “I see a new generation of children who know the story and love the Blue Dog.  They bring their parents in the gallery and share the art and history, because they’re learning it in school.  With his love of painting, George has inspired countless young artists to follow their hearts and dream big.”

(pictured, last month at Edwins Elementary School, Fort Walton Beach, FL; for more photos from our Florida education week visit here; for Louisiana, see the post “Go North and Learn”)

Last week we secured a major George Rodrigue exhibition (Fall 2013) at the National Steinbeck Center.  John Steinbeck was born and raised in Salinas, a city where he remains controversial, even fifty years after his death, especially among the established agricultural families. 

"We’re defined by the 'lettuce curtain'," more than one person explained, a term that jolted me with its divisiveness, historical significance, and possible political incorrectness - and yet the perfect way, maybe the only way, to describe the mere 17 miles (ironically) between the field workers of Salinas, California and the golf-playing elite of Pebble Beach (or similarly, our fairytale world in downtown Carmel).

(On our first date, George, photographed last week at the Steinbeck Center, shared his fascination with Marilyn Monroe, then Norma Jean, as the first Artichoke Festival Queen in nearby Castroville in 1948; on the date, we sat in a biker bar three miles away in the tiny town of Moss Landing)

For George Rodrigue and our Foundation, this is the perfect opportunity for a major exhibition in central California, as well as education outreach with the Arts Council for Monterey County.  George is already working on concepts for large-scale new paintings, which may be his first works ever truly inspired by California.

The state is second in George’s heart only to Louisiana, and we look forward to exploring connections between Steinbeck and Rodrigue ---- one having preserved his culture in words and the other in paint.  Like Steinbeck’s stories, George’s Cajun paintings were controversial from the start. 

That said, I recall a reporter who interviewed George not long after we moved to Carmel.

“Now that you’re painting in California, are you inspired by the lone cypress, by the hills, or by the beach?”

George looked at him and laughed.

“Why would I paint those?  My landscape is in here,” he explained, with his hand on his chest, “and that’s always Louisiana.”


--please join me on facebook for more photos and discussion

--above, shooting bottles last week in Carmel Valley

--also, Rodrigue’s soulful painting of Cajun accordion player Iry LeJeune in this week’s Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans


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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Ain’t No Cartoon Dog

The Blue Dog is not a cartoon.  It is a shape that interacts with other shapes, not characters, all according to George Rodrigue’s artistic eye. There are no speech bubbles coming from its mouth.  Although it delivers a message, its exchange is a silent and mysterious communication between its golden saucers and our eyes.

(pictured, I Ain’t No Cartoon Dog, 1994, acrylic on canvas, 24x20, click photo to enlarge)

Furthermore, the Blue Dog is not a dog.  It has no backside (making sculpture challenging).  It doesn’t run or bark or chase its tail.  It doesn’t sit at our feet and look up; rather, it stands human-size, staring straight-on.

(pictured, Flower Ann, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 24x20)

From the beginning, I watched George struggle, almost without care, to define his creation.

“What does it mean?” asks the public.

Yet his answers are as varied as his paintings, shifting from the loup-garou in early years, to memories of his studio dog Tiffany, to a symbolic leap from his painted Cajun past, to pure, undefined abstract form. (See the links above, and more under ‘Blue Dog’ to the right of this post)

Ironically, Rodrigue embraces the cartoon-in-art, especially Pop Art designs such as Andy Warhol’s Superman or Roy Lichtenstein’s Comic Strips.  As an art student in Los Angeles, young George painted Pop Goes the Ads (1966, below), a 4x6 foot mixed media on plywood that hangs in his studio today.

-click this photo and others to enlarge-

The Blue Dog, however, is not Snoopy; nor is it a Pop Art reference to the comics, as in the examples above.  

A cartoon-Blue Dog analogy is no more relevant, nor appropriate, than associating Rodrigue’s Cajuns (excepting the Portraits and Saga) with specific people and events, or his oaks with actual trees.  Yet these misinterpretations have haunted George since his earliest landscapes, when local critics, blind to his strong shapes and symbolism, described his work as “dreary and monotonous.” 

(pictured, 1970; read more about George's critics here)

Even the New York advertising agency Young and Rubicam first approached Rodrigue for their client Xerox with designs that included speech bubbles at the Blue Dog’s mouth.  As a result, George nearly missed this opportunity, rejecting their offer until they convinced him that they understood his art. (See the Xerox Blue Dog paintings and read the story here).

(pictured, Consequences, 2002, 48 inch diameter)

From the beginning, whether Oak Trees, Cajuns, Hurricanes, Blue Dogs or Bodies, George Rodrigue’s art remains powerful and distinctive because he has unique ideas and approaches them abstractly.  It’s the secret to his paintings.  He doesn’t see a tree, a person, or a dog.  Rather, he sees shape, design and color as he tackles each canvas world. 

The entire painting becomes the subject, without negative space, as in this 1992 painting from the Evangeline Series.

It’s not what he paints, but rather how he paints that explains why Rodrigue’s Cajun paintings appealed from the beginning to collectors outside of Louisiana.  (See the essays under ‘Cajuns’ to the right of this post.) 

This same idea also explains why a simple Blue Dog exists as not a cartoon, but rather an artistic phenomenon.


*please join me on facebook for Rodrigue photos, paintings and nostalgia, linked here

*pictured above, At the Head of the Red River, 2011, 48x72

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Popular Art: Famous Paintings by George Rodrigue

During our recent tours in north Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle, the question arose several times regarding George Rodrigue’s most popular paintings.

“My favorite painting,” he’s quick to reply, “is always the one I’m working on now.”

(pictured, George Rodrigue at his easel in Carmel Valley, California, 10/6/11)

But for the rest of us, human nature and personal taste draws us towards certain works.  Like everything in life, this changes over time.  Remarkably, George Rodrigue’s public changes right along with him --- although usually, but not always, running a few years behind.

George is the first to admit (and argue) that he has never painted to please an audience.  In the early 1990s, both friends and strangers thought he was crazy:

“Who wants a Blue Dog?” they asked him.

But George remained unfazed.  Much of Louisiana rejected his Cajun paintings for years.  This was especially true of the Lafayette and New Iberia Cajun communities, where the people oftentimes found his interpretations primitive and insulting.

Rodrigue’s own mother, who was proud that her father, a Courrege, came to America directly from France, declared in the early 1970s:

“Why would you paint the Cajuns?  You’re not like them; you’re French!”

This, despite the fact that George and, as first cousins, both his parents, are the definition of Cajun --- descended from four Rodrigue brothers expelled from Nova Scotia during the Grand DĂ©rangement of 1755.

The Aioli Dinner (1971, 32x46 inches) is George Rodrigue’s most famous Cajun painting.  It is also his first painting with people, a gourmet dinner club that met every month from 1890 to 1920 on the lawns of plantation homes in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. (click this photo and others to enlarge)

Forty years after it was painted, dozens of people inquire daily within our galleries and on-line about this important and priceless painting.  Yet it hung on the wall of George’s Lafayette gallery for fifteen years, much of that time for $5,000, without a buyer’s interest. 

Eventually George loaned the painting to the Zigler Museum in Jennings, Louisiana where it hung for many years before making its way permanently to the New Orleans Museum of Art.  There it hangs today on public view, beloved and admired by thousands.

(Read a detailed history of Rodrigue’s Aioli Dinner here)

Jolie Blonde (1974, 24x18 inches) is a close second in fame to the Aioli Dinner.  Rodrigue painted her hundreds of times using dozens of models, and he continues painting her today. Yet it is this first painting, an image without a model, created in one hour in the middle of the night and from his imagination, that remains his most famous. 

(Read a detailed history and view other versions of Rodrigue’s Jolie Blonde here)

Like the Aioli Dinner, people inquire daily about Jolie Blonde, even more so recently, since Rodrigue’s sons opened Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro in Lafayette.

If you ask George Rodrigue about popularity, he says that his Louisiana festival posters, particularly in the 1980s, made him popular throughout the state.

Yet it was a painting and advertising project for Absolut Vodka that catapulted his fame worldwide.  The paintings Absolut Louisiana (above, 1992) and Absolut Rodrigue (below, 1993) appeared in hundreds of magazines during the 1990s, placing Rodrigue’s art in good company, with other Absolut artists such as Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Damien Hirst.

Overnight the public changed.  One day they walked in and asked, confused,

“What’s with this Blue Dog?”

And the next day they asked, excited,

“I know this Blue Dog!  Is this the real thing?!”

Hawaiian Blues (1999, 36x63 inches) may be the most famous Blue Dog painting.  Painted for the cover of a Neiman Marcus catalogue, the image saw wide circulation in the late 1990s, appearing among other places in the windows of the department store’s Honolulu, Houston and Dallas locations. 

The painting has a lengthy and fascinating history that lead to other related works for Neiman Marcus, all detailed in the post "Blue Dog Man, 1996-1999."

Rodrigue’s prints, too, are worth mentioning, including his highly successful Jazz Fest posters, God Bless America following 9/11, and his post-Katrina silkscreens.  (Please follow the links for images and background).

Yet when asked directly,

“Which of your paintings are most popular?” 

George replies, “The recent ones.” And he’s correct.

I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly during this year’s museum tour.  With the Blue Dog on their minds as they enter, people stop and, to their surprise, usually pause with interest at the soulful, rich  early landscapes and Cajuns (see links to the right of this post), but only when forced by determined docents.

Although waiting for the Blue Dog, they pass the early Blue Dog works with barely a glance, once again corralled by docents who catch people’s attention with phrases like ‘first Blue Dog painting’ and ‘notice the red eyes.’  Painted just prior to George’s switch from oil to acrylic paint, these images, so shocking when first painted, appear muted compared to later canvases.

Paintings from a decade ago, such as Hawaiian Blues mentioned above, draw more attention today than Blue Dogs from 1992.  However, even Hawaiian Blues lacks the ‘Wow’ factor that stops people in their tracks at the New Orleans and Carmel gallery windows.

Approaching the end of the museum exhibitions, people gasp at the new works, giant canvases (such as What’s Coming Over the Hill?, 42x78 inches, pictured below) in near-electric primary flat colors, broken down into simple and strong shapes.

Somehow George’s audience has grown and changed along with him.  It’s an enigma, really.  George has never competed with other artists nor followed a trend.  He has painted since childhood by himself, both literally and figuratively, creating in his own direction, so that he remains unpredictable.


-for more discussion and photos, I hope you ‘like’ my new facebook page

-read about my favorite Rodrigue painting here

-“George Rodrigue vs. Georgia O’Keeffe:  An Artistic Rivalry Lives Forever,” a look at the power of social media in my recent post for Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans

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