|Letter from Karl, c. 1940, Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977)
Collection of the Union League Club of Chicago
Chronic pancreatitis, longstanding inflammation of the pancreas, is most commonly caused by an excessive intake of alcohol.[i] This was the case of Gertrude Abercrombie, who painted this cryptic, pseudo-surrealistic painting, Letter to Karl. Though born in the United States, early on she lived abroad, when her opera singer parents moved the family to Berlin, Germany. She would have witnessed the burgeoning European avant-garde art movement in the early 1920’s known as Surrealism, championed by Guillaume Apollinaire and expressed most seminally by artists Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and philosopher Andre Breton. Though her work exudes a surrealist aesthetic, her content detours slightly; surrealists, indeed champions of the subconscious and of dream imagery, sought to paint illogical scenes and unexpected juxtapositions of everyday objects.[ii] Abercrombie’s still life, comprised of a letter, vase of carnations, and framed picture, is hardly illogical, nor a depiction of incongruously juxtaposed everyday objects. But another facet of Surrealism—to illustrate that which cannot be seen, in some respect characterizes Abercrombie’s Letter to Karl. A clear sense of yearning and expectation are imbued within her work. She seems to have captured the essence and sentiment of Andre Breton’s epigram: “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.” In this respect, Abercrombie’s stark landscape and still life pay homage to an affiliated Surrealist movement—the Scuola Metafisica led by Giorgio de Chirico.
The painting is riddled with mystery and unanswerable questions. There is a picture within a picture, wherein a woman lounges before a full moon. Is this the painter? Is she dreaming about the letter on the table? Did the flowers come
from the sender of the letter, and are they to be a memento mori, thus a symbol of the transience of beauty and of life itself? Has the letter from Karl been opened, or does the viewer witness the expectation and the anxiety of the moment before the envelope is torn open?
Abercrombie’s oeuvre comprises a number of adept works, usually small in format, that often feature recurring motifs such as full moons, leafless trees, coupled with quotidian objects like cats, snails, and shells. She also was a member of the government-funded WPA—the Depression-era program that employed artists for various public commissions such as post office murals (sadly many today destroyed or left to deteriorate).
How her affliction of pancreatitis may have encroached on her artistic output cannot be fully ascertained. (She also suffered from arthritis). But as Surrealists employed dreams and delved into the subconscious for their creative works, Abercrombie could have artistically benefited from a prolonged state of intoxication.
Regardless of her illness, she was a popular figure in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where she hosted salons buzzing with jazz musicians of the era—Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker among the many glitterati. In fact her painting shows her letter bearing the address of her first independent apartment there: “5642 Harper.” The sender of the depicted letter is more allusive as the only legible portion of the return address shows the initials “KP.” These could refer to her friend Karl Priebe, a celebrated painter in his own right from Wisconsin.[iii] The work hangs today in the private club, The Union League Club of Chicago, which boasts myriad Chicago artists from the nineteenth century up to today.
[i] The second most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is gallstones.
[ii] There was a group of Chicago Surrealists, but this was founded in Chicago in July 1966 by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont. Abercrombie’s work dates over two decades earlier.
[iii]Priebe, also in poor health in his later years, died of cancer the year before Gertrude, in 1976. He went through the trauma of having surgery to remove one eye in 1975.
SALLY METZLER, PhD, is the director of the art collection at the Union League Club in Chicago.