Poet, scholar opens exhibit of art

Retired St. John's tutor has oil, charcoal paintings at gallery in Annapolis

January 11, 2001|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At St. John's College, they know from Renaissance men.

But even among the classically trained tutors of that venerable institution who spend their lives reading and teaching the likes of Machiavelli, Bocaccio and Shakespeare, Elliott Zuckerman is more of a "uomo universale"- a true "Renaissance man" - than most.

Over the years, Annapolitans have come to know Zuckerman as the poet, scholar, musician, pianist and cultural sage whose poetry readings, preconcert talks and lecture-demonstrations on the piano music of Frederic Chopin have helped bring high culture alive for the general public.

Now 70 and retired from St. John's, the man who studied English literature at Cambridge and received a doctorate in European cultural history from Columbia University is revealing another dimension of his talent. "Scenes and Faces," an exhibit of oil and charcoal paintings by Zuckerman, has opened at the Maryland Federation of Art Gallery in Annapolis.

Twenty Zuckerman paintings, including several of his colorful "facescapes," are on display through Feb. 4.

"I surprised everyone who knew me by attending New York's High School of Music and Art as an artist, not as a music student," he said. "But I was also studying piano quite intensively elsewhere, so music was always with me, too."

With a chuckle, he said that in high school, he was at least partly responsible for the distinguished journalistic career of Max Frankel of the New York Times.

"We had adjoining easels," Zuckerman recalled, "and one day, early in the course, Frankel had trouble painting something that had come easily to me. The next day, he quit art class, joined the school paper and started his career in journalism then and there."

Zuckerman painted extensively in England during a fellowship at Clare College, Cambridge in the early 1950s, and studied modern art as part of his doctoral program. In the mid-1970s, after establishing himself at St. John's, he began crafting the body of work now hanging in many private art collections across the country.

"I think I came to enjoy it so much because I could work at my own pace, without any demands or time limits," he said, surveying his handiwork in the gallery at a reception Sunday afternoon.

Not surprisingly, there are musical connections in Zuckerman's artwork. One example is his "Second-Act Set," which recently won the Maryland Federation's Tilghman Award for general excellence.

The painting is a striking view of a stage setting for Richard Wagner's opera, "Die Meistersinger." Half-timbered homes and a bridge evoking the feel of Nuremberg, Germany, are visible amid a tangle of lines and shapes.

But mostly the exhibit is about portraits, particularly the "face- scapes" which combine bright oil colors and dark charcoal lines to turn human visages into geometrically divided images suggestive of stained glass. Several self-portraits are examples of this.

Also impressive are cheerful, jaunty still lifes that juxtapose stylized fruits and plants with the suggestive urban images lurking outside the artist's window.

"Painting in oils is a lot like composing a piece of music," the artist said. "You can start a picture, leave it for a time and come back to it whenever you feel like it."

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