Secrets seen: John Wilde’s private collection at MOWA - 2015

Wisconsin Gazette
Written by Kat Minerath, Contributing writer
Thursday, 13 August 2015


The night is coming on in “Eventide at the Duchess’s.” The sky glows orange with an apocalyptic burn, familiar in the paintings of artist John Wilde (1919–2006). The sunset bathes a wild bunch of cavorting bodies. Some couples embrace and others face off, while in other vignettes single figures dot the improbable landscape. A woman lounges on a gigantic leaf as another balances on a beach ball floating in water, or on a head sticking up from the ground. In the distance, with striking nonchalance, is the painter who busies himself working at his easel.

This painting is described by Museum of Wisconsin Art director Laurie Winters as “the last great painting of Wilde’s career,” completed the year before his death. Accompanied by numerous studies for the finished piece, it is one of the highlights of Wilde’s Wildes: A Very Private Collection. 

The exhibition is a celebration of one of the key figures in the state’s art history and a peek into his personal collection. These are pictures that he hung on to, and have been brought together in an exhibition of about 80 pieces.

Waking up from a strange dream, you may spend a moment trying to recall the details of what was seen and experienced before those fragile, half-recognized bits slip away. For Wilde, this sort of imagery — and the boldness of bringing it into tangible line, color, and form — was integral to his art

Wilde was interested in surrealism and became canonized as a magic realist, something of a subgenre of surrealism. Imagination is an important ingredient in Wilde’s compositions, but even more so is his consummate skill as a draftsman.

Born in Milwaukee, Wilde lived most of his life in this state, eventually teaching at the University of Wisconsin and settling into a home outside of Madison. He eschewed any sort of particularly regionalist flavor, as well as the modernist predilection for abstract painting. Enduring influences of northern European Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Dürer remained strongly in his embrace, and with the tones of sexuality and violence that sometimes play into his scenes, a bit of Hieronymus Bosch comes to mind.

The Dürer connection was formed early. Dürer was an artistic superstar in his day, supremely confident and representing himself in a famously Christ-like self-portrait dated 1500 when he was 28 years old. In that oil painting, his hair is long and flowing, and he looks seriously at the viewer as his hand is cupped to his chest in a vague gesture of blessing.

Wilde borrowed a few bits from his predecessor in a charmingly brash self-portrait in pencil, done at the age of 19. There is something hippie-ish about Wilde’s look, with exceptionally long hair, a full mustache and striped shirt. He holds his hand to his body, strangely skeletal and decorated by numerous rings. It takes a moment to recall that when this picture it was drawn, it was 1939 — the fashion is distinctly ahead of his time.

Self-portraits were something that Wilde returned to, unflinchingly, through his career. As his age wore on, the accoutrements fell away more and more in these selections on view. The process of time and its record through the drawn line become the expressive vehicle, rather than signifiers of identity marked through baubles and costumes.

Clothing falls away altogether in many of the exhibition’s works, often with a winking humor. Shirley Grilley married Wilde in 1969, after the death of his first wife. She was a model and a muse and certainly must have shared a playful side of character as seen in “S. with Raccoon (Shirley with Leonard).” Nude except for a pair of sleek heeled boots, she is about to spiritedly swat away the pouncing forest creature with a giant leaf. As this is the artist’s collection, there are a good number of delightful domestic scenes where the Wilde household appears like a freewheeling imaginarium.

Wilde is an intense artist in his precise rendering of the human form, and not negligent of the abstract, emotional side of life. The complex psychologies and expressions of sexuality underlie numerous works, often overtly. “Jane and Joan Enter the Kingdom of Heaven” is one representation, where the duo’s entwined bodies float weightlessly in a bronzed atmosphere, among orbs decorated by spirals and geometric patterns in an orgasmic otherworld.

The world inside John Wilde’s head is one aspect that makes this exhibition so captivating, but it would not have the same power without his meticulous, elegant sense of craft. It has the feeling of a dream, remarkable for the invention of characters and settings from the artist’s private life that, presented to viewers, become part of their own memory.

To read this review on the Wisconsin Gazette’s website please click HERE.