JAMES GUY (1909–1983)
The Camouflage Man in a Landscape (A Six-panel Mural), 1939
Oil on Masonite, 83 x 216 in.
Signed and dated (on first panel, at lower left): Guy / ’39
EX COLL.: private collection, Boston, until 2009; to the trade, until the present
The genesis of Guy’s 6-panel mural, The Camouflage Man in a Landscape, remains a mystery. At present, it is unclear as to whether it was a commissioned work (perhaps used as a set design for a theatre) or a private endeavor inspired by the positive response to an easel painting of the same name. Suffice to say, The Camouflage Man in a Landscape attests to Guy’s involvement with mural painting. Guy painted murals for for public schools in Hartford and Meriden, Connecticut, as well as a mural (since lost) for the 13th Street Communist Works School.
The 1938 easel painting that inspired this mural was notable in that it was included in American Art Today, a large survey exhibition held in the Contemporary Art Building at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Intended to represent all facets of contemporary American art, from “traditional academicism to surrealism and abstraction,” the exhibition included 550 paintings, 250 sculptures and 400 examples of graphic art selected by juries of prominent artists from all regions of the country. Guy was among the contingent of artists who submitted examples of their work to the Committee of Selection from New York, a group of established artists that included Stuart Davis, Philip Evergood, Jonas Lie, and Eugene Speicher, who no doubt viewed Camouflage Man in a Landscape as a striking example of Guy’s manipulation of surrealist devices to convey his reaction to the complexities and struggles of modern life. A provocative work that suggests a chaotic, prewar world in disarray, the painting reached an audience beyond the confines of the Contemporary Art Building when it was reproduced in the Sunday Magazine section of the New York Times on June 18, 1939, the caption identifying it as “an example of Surrealist influence. It shows daring and bizarre juxtapositions and a feeling for the fantastic and mysterious.”
At some point in 1939, Guy transposed the same “daring and bizarre juxtapositions” to his mural. The “camouflage man” appears in the foreground: a distorted figure dressed in a suit who looks backwards as he runs forward, perhaps hoping to blend into his surroundings as he flees an unseen threat. The sinister, dream-like environment includes a pair of naked men, interpreted as elongated, rubbery forms, pushing against a wall lit by a nearby spotlight and some paper lanterns, and further on, a mysterious figure escorting a child, their darkened shapes silhouetted against an empty Daliesque vista flanked in the distance by mountains and sky.