By Doug MacCash, via NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Artist George Dureau, master of mythic painting and hyper-realistic photography died Monday morning (April 7) at the Waldon Health Care Center in Kenner, where he was being treated for advanced Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83. No artist better captured the gestalt of his native city than Dureau, who intuitively appreciated both its romantic classical-revival self-image and its gritty realism.
Dureau’s art can be found in museums and public places throughout the city. At city functions in Gallier Hall, his enormous depiction of a mythic Mardi Gras parade marches across an entire wall. His heroic cast-bronze nudes guard the gates at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. His supple portrait of Professor Longhair appeared on the 1999 Jazz Fest poster and his enormous bust of Artemis watches Canal Street from the pediment of Harrah’s New Orleans Casino. At Cafe Sbisa on Decatur Street, his mural of glamorous French Quarterites has shined for decades in the spotlights above the bar. When fire broke out in an adjacent building this winter, art lovers called to express concern for the beloved painting.
For decades, Dureau was a striking sight, bicycling or driving his black Jeep through the narrow streets of the Vieux Carre. He wore his raven hair long and he added decorative braids to his beard. His eyebrows seemed to be permanently arched in incredulity above his dark eyes and prominent nose. He spoke in a musical basso profundo warble. A friend described the overall effect as Mephistophelean.
Dureau admired classical and modern dance. He glided barefoot on the wooden floors of his picturesque apartments. And he painted like a dancer. In his studio, charcoal dust accumulated on the floor beneath his large-scale, sinewy figure drawings, produced with long athletic strokes.
In Dureau’s paintings, the world was populated with nymphs, satyrs, demigods, football players, dwarf professional wrestlers and even the Beatles. In form, they are evocative of Carnival and cemetery statuary. In style, they hover somewhere in the continuum between Degas and Diebenkorn. Some are overtly erotic.
One of Dureau’s creative quirks was that he was never quite finished with a drawing or painting. Everything was a work in progress.
“That was one of the funny things about George,” said William Fagaly, The New Orleans Museum of Art’s long-time curator. “The people who were in charge (of the gallery) would say, ‘We have to have your stuff by Sunday.’ He would be painting until five minutes before the opening preview on Sunday evening. You’d have to distract him and get him away. He would get in his mind that the piece wasn’t finished.”
Not everyone approved of Dureau’s painterly style.
In 1971, a chastising review of Dureau’s paintings appeared in The Times-Picayune. Coincidentally, on the same page was an article illuminating the work of New Orleans’ enigmatic Storyville photographer E.J. Bellocq, who lived from 1873 to 1949 and produced some of art history’s most haunting portraits. It may simply be a coincidence, but it wasn’t long before Dureau took up the camera.
Where Bellocq’s photos are marked with a mysterious pendant, Dureau’s often include his Army dog tags.
Fagaly recalls Dureau’s early photography experiments in practical terms. “Do you know the reason he started to do photography,” Fagaly asked rhetorically. “They were to be studies for his paintings, nothing more. He didn’t envision them to be works of art in themselves.“
True, at first Dureau may have seen the camera as a mere tool, but in his hands it became a magic lantern. If he had not been the most acute observer of the Crescent City psyche before, he soon became so.
Dureau first photographed the employees of a local grocery store and friends. Then he began inviting French Quarter denizens to pose nude before his camera. He favored muscular men. As stated earlier, he sometimes chose those who had lost limbs. They were his friends. In his lens, they became classical statues, broken yet triumphant. With his square format camera and straightforward style, he achieved a sexual and psychological content as deep and sublime as the Mississippi River.
Miranda Lash, the New Orleans Museum of Art’s curator of contemporary art lauds Dureau for his ability to see the grace in subjects that others might find graceless.
“Well you know, I think he had a way of depicting his subjects (including amputees and dwarves) that was very frank but very evocative at he same time,” she said. “He did it in a way that made them seem powerful and heroic, which is not easy to do. He loved the male figure. Especially in his painting, he had a way of making his figures seem very mythological, like gods and centaurs, but at the same time it’s as if they stepped right out of Carnival”
The immeasurably more famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe came to New Orleans to visit with Dureau. The New Orleans artist was nonplussed by the fact that the New York star didn’t care for Creole food, any food for that matter. It was incomprehensible to Dureau.
Dureau was a child during the Great Depression. He grew up mostly in Mid-City, near Bayou St. John. He was a gifted artist from the start. He climbed a particular oak tree to smoke cigarettes without being detected. His dad ran a party and wedding supply rental company and had a small boat. Dureau served in the Army, in the intelligence service, he said.
Dureau attended college at Louisiana State University, studying with Louisiana’s legendary cultural critic Caroline Durieux. He decorated windows for a Canal Street department store. In 1964 he was arrested in a notoriously unjustified raid on the counter-culture coffee shop The Quorum at the edge of the Quarter. At the time, he lived upstairs. Later, he lived in a splendidly decrepit mansion on Esplanade Avenue. He showed his art at the Orleans Gallery, perhaps the Crescent City’s first purely modern art showplace.
Dureau was dyslexic, but he was drawn to words. An enormous well-worn dictionary stood on a pedestal in his apartment. He would have loved the term Mephistophelean. He said that friends volunteered to read books for his benefit as he worked. He was a great wit. He was genteel but could be shockingly bawdy. He produced wonderful buffets of cold pasta, beans and whatever antipasto Matassa’s grocery could provide. His meals were like still lifes. He entertained everyone. His models were never merely his models.
“There’s a rare humanism in his work,” said Ogden Museum of Southern Art curator Bradley Sumrall, “because he was close to his subjects. When you look at his portraits they look back. He was very democratic artist. He had a personal relationship with everything he did.”
It might have been possible for Dureau to better capitalize on his gifts, but he wasn’t terribly focused on the business of art. And though he occasionally showed his works out of town, he never moved away to better ply his trade. He was the lion of the New Orleans art scene, seemingly unmoved by current trends, largely apolitical, tuned in — better than anyone — to whatever makes New Orleans so peculiar and magnetic.
“He certainly was a New Orleanian through and through,” said Fagaly. “He knew the importance of having a presence in New York. But he just couldn’t tear himself away from New Orleans. When he did get away (to travel) he enjoyed himself thoroughly. He just liked being at home. He knew who he was and he knew what he had to do. And he played it well. And it paid off for him. He was a pioneer in his day. He achieved a lot of fame, nationally and internationally by simply staying home and staying focused on what he was doing.”
The fact that he was the satisfied ruler of his modest realm was appealing to some who sought the romantic lifestyle of the Vieux Carre.
“When I was a young man and came to New Orleans, George Dureau embodied everything I was looking for in the French Quarter,” said Sumrall. “He was (on) the last frontier of bohemia. He lived the life that he represented in his work. He was the whole package.
Katie Nachod, a law librarian who works in the federal courthouse in the French Quarter, met Dureau when he was already in his late 70s. She passed his Bienville Street apartment daily on her way to work. What began as casual hellos, became Dureau’s gentlemanly habit of walking her to work and waiting for her in the evening to walk her home. She knew who he was, of course; everyone in the Quarter knew George. But she never dreamed the famous man would befriend her. He surprised her with pastries outside of his studio door.
“I remember telling my friends that a famous artist was serving me breakfast,” she said. “He was always so polite. He was absolutely charming.”
They became fast friends.
When Dureau began to have medical troubles, Nachod realized that a lifetime spent as an artist had not provided enough income to carry Dureau through a long illness. Nachod helped organize his friends to help him. She said he died at about the same time his beloved Nina Simone CD began to fail. She says she feels like she got much more than she gave. Perhaps we all did.