NEW ORLEANS — On the patio of his cottage in Key West, with his most celebrated writing years behind him, playwright Tennessee Williams took refuge in painting. Most of the pieces from the last 30 years of his life are in private hands. The display of 19 of his paintings in Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans is a rare occasion to see how the Mississippi-born author of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie expressed his loneliness, sexuality, and loathing for Truman Capote in this personal pastime.
There’s often a reason that the obscure visual art of celebrities remains unknown, and the small assembly of warmly colored paintings at the Ogden isn’t going to convince anyone Williams deserves a Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) retrospective, or maybe even more exhibitions. Almost all the paintings on view, curated by Cori Convertito of the Key West Art and Historical Society, are from the collection of Williams’s friend David Wolkowsky. Many of them show nude men in tight bathing suits, bodies softly shaped with visible pencil marks underneath the paint. Other paintings seem like vented frustration from a lonely man whose lover Frank Merlo had died in 1963, and whose last majorly popular play — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) — was decades behind him. In “A Child’s Garden of Roses” (1976), a baby with the head of former friend Truman Capote has shot several beach goers in the chest, their blood dripping on the sand.
Nevertheless, the paintings are also unfiltered expression of the personal life of one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, who often didn’t put these sides of himself in his plays, novels, or screenplays, despite their autobiographical influence. Family depression, for example, and the mental illness of his sister Rose, inspired the unstable heroines of Glass Menagerie and Streetcar, but his homosexuality, which was something of an open secret, was never expressed in his plays. In his art, created only for himself and friends, and often tossed in the trash the day it was made, there are revealing moments like in “Le Solitaire” (1976) where a lone figure strolls down an empty street, or almost symbolist experiments like “Cri de Coeur” (1976) where a nude figure stands in a pink-, blue-, red-, and purple-tinged water as a boat filled with flames consumes a green cross. Tributes to Rimbaud and Jean Genet mingle alongside.
Williams died in 1983, and while he kept writing prolifically for almost his entire life, he eventually left the words and occupied himself instead with just painting. Now over 30 years later in the pastel, expressionist works, is an aspect of his life that remained out of the public eye, even when so much of his life still revives with each staging of his iconic plays.
Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter continues at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street, New Orleans) through May 31.