Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The First Painting

Self Portrait (Penelope's Picture). Jerry the Bird, 1973

This is an image of what is reliably believed to be Jerry the Bird's first painting. It was made with acrylic paint on cold-press paper, approximately nine by twelve inches. It can safely be assumed that it was painted in 1973, or possibly early in 1974.

Jerry himself referred to this painting as "Penelope's Picture." He is referring to the character of Penelope in his memoir "Among the Humans," although the real name of the woman upon whom Penelope was based is something Jerry never revealed.

"Penelope's Picture" refers to the painting that she painted of Jerry. According to "Among the Humans," she and Jerry were next-door neighbors in an apartment court. He sat for her and she painted his portrait. Jerry writes that Penelope was a fan of Marcel Duchamp, the French-born artist and thinker. Late in his career, Duchamp decided to create miniature museums of his work, tiny enough that they could be carried in fold-out suitcases. He meticulously recreated his earlier works in reduced size, and this was a concept that Penelope was very taken by. After painting Jerry's portrait, she also painted a miniature version, about the size of a baseball card.

When Penelope leaves the apartment at the conclusion of "Among the Humans," she leaves the miniature of her portrait behind for Jerry to find. Jerry later decided to recreate her original portrait of him by copying the miniature back to its original size. This was his first attempt at painting, and according to interviews where he discusses his visual art, it took him a great deal of work. The painting took dozens of attempts to get right. Early attempts were destroyed. The only one that survived was the only one Jerry felt even marginally satisfied with.

The creation of this painting was a watershed project in Jerry's career, and it is yet another example of the profound effect his relationship with the Penelope woman had on him.

From a textual point of view, the painting is quite extrordinary as a "self-portrait"; it is a self-portrait based on a miniature copy of a portrait painted by someone else. But it helped establish what would become Jerry's signature style: crude, simplistic, but evocative and colorful. How much of this style is copied from the portrait Penelope painted is unknown. It has never been seen.

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