I have a distinct memory of flipping through the pages of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) when I was around 16 years old. I was on the metro in Paris. I had heard about Kerouac from my sister and from spending too much time at Shakespeare and Company in the Latin quarter near Notre-Dame. As a French-American person, it felt right that I would discover Kerouac in Paris, the city where so many of the Beat poets vagabonded and swam through the tumultuous currents of their literary lives.
For anyone unfamiliar with On the Road, the novel is based on Kerouac’s road trips with his friends across America. The book oozes with formal experiments, evolutions of stream-of-consciousness composition heralded by Gertrude Stein and the French Surrealists, and with the expansive dreams of a generation of lost and, later, found poetic souls. At the height of the 1950s, Beat writing was characterized by political ruminations and a call to bohemianism as a rejection of America’s normative and oppressive, war-torn climate. It took me a while to finish the book, perhaps because I was too young to truly understand what was at stake. I haven’t picked it up again, but maybe I should. What is certain is that the recent monograph of Kerouac’s never-before-seen paintings sparked something inside of me that evoked my teenage discovery of poetry and language, and of a Paris I had — and would — never know.
In Howl (1956), Allen Ginsberg famously wrote: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Such is the zeitgeist that permeated the Beat generation across disciplines, from painting to film to dance to design. Perhaps at the head of the table was Kerouac, whose On the Road crystallized forever a specific moment in time. He never wanted to stick to one medium but always stuck to one ethos.
Accompanying the exhibition Kerouac. Beat Painting (December 3, 2017–April 22, 2018) at the Museo MA*GA in Gallarate, Italy, the catalogue presents a collection of essays and images addressing Kerouac’s life as an artist, not of the pen but of the brush. Brothers Arminio and Paolo Sciolli began collecting Kerouac’s paintings in 2007, loaning them to the museum to expose Kerouac’s singular paintings to the world. The catalogue is crucial in studying the overlap in his investment in both writing and painting.
At first glance, the paintings look like yet another example of Jackson Pollock-esque Expressionism. (Pollock and Kerouac were contemporaries.) But, the more you look at the paintings, the more you study their poiesis, their emphasis on abstraction as a means of representing an emotion or a feeling, the more you’ll notice how unique they are — the more you’ll see how their themes intersect with those in his writings. Museum Director Sandrina Bandera writes in the catalogue that the paintings “reconstruct a narrative in which the written works and the forays into figurative art would perfectly coincide: different aspects of the same poetic journey.”
Works such as “The Slouch Hat” (1960) or “Woman (Joan Rawshanks) in Blue with Black Hair” (undated) serve as both visual reference points for his writing and historical resources for future scholars. “The Slouch Hat” depicts a man in a quintessentially Beatnik hat, surrounded by a swirl of sketches. The man looks into the distance, past the tumult and confusion around him, lost in thought. He recalls many characters in Kerouac’s novels, characters that feel so profoundly real that they strike you with the sheer force of their being. “Woman” is a visual representation of the woman to whom Kerouac dedicates a whole section of Visions of Cody (1951–52, published 1972).
The beauty of these two paintings is that, while we can discern the subject — he in his hat, she in her sleek blue dress — the context in which these figures exist remains blurred in the same way as the echo of a sentence in a Kerouac book or a story told the morning after a long night of cross-country driving. As Francesco Tedeschi states in a catalogue essay: “What emerges from his art is a picture of a personality based on dynamism, on the immediate expression of his way of being and feeling, and on a proud hunger for and love of life.” It’s precisely the personality that emanates from the canvas.
The subject matter in Kerouac’s paintings becomes more central with his exploration of religious scenes following his brother’s death. This newfound emphasis on religion beautifully mirrors the symbolism in his written work. Objects in his novel are emblems while people are odalisques, slaves to the pen that creates them — until they break free, into wild and uncontrolled abstractions.
Kerouac: Beat Painting suggests that writing and painting are merely two ways of expressing language. For Kerouac, painting was his sacred refuge, a medium he could use to mine what his writing couldn’t reach. The two forms were reciprocal in his practice. Despite the overuse of the Beats as a pop cultural references that no longer resonate with the idealism and freedom they once represented, the relationship between Kerouac’s painting and writing might again inspire us to experiment. It inspired me to pick up the books that have made up the canon of my literary mind.