'A Thousand Kisses,' Signed by the Artist

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 10, 2008

The holiday -- on Thursday -- usually arrives overdone with sugar, schoolroom paste and candy, juvenile giggling. "A Thousand Kisses: Love Letters From the Archives of American Art" takes you past all that.

These artists' old love letters taste bitterer, for one thing. Forty are on view. Pulled out of their envelopes, and pulled out of their privacies, they've been put in glass vitrines in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution's Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in a one-room exhibition that's slow and dark and rare, a valentine for grown-ups.

Together they keep pointing to a central truth of Valentine's Day too frequently ignored. Which is: Cupid in his quiver carries arrows of two kinds, golden ones to kindle love, and leaden ones to end it.

Thought-darts of the latter sort fly among these missives, heavy as can be. The whole show aches with loss. Who writes love letters anymore?

That artists, being artists, are more amorous than the rest of us is pretty much a myth. But their calling does have perks. Peering at your canvas, or just staring into space, is not against the rules. You're allowed to take your time.

"I have just unlocked my little box and found your letter -- and the world has drifted off a thousand miles and left me alone with you again," painter Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890) wrote his beloved Eleanor not long before he died. "Platt my neighbor," he continued, referring to Charles Adams Platt (1861-1933), the architect who later would design the Freer Gallery of Art, "is amazed at the amount of time I can spend doing nothing, just as if thinking of you were an unimportant occupation."

He went on for 11 pages. Almost all the artists in "A Thousand Kisses" -- a few of whom are famous (Frida Kahlo, Eero Saarinen, Moses Soyer, Rockwell Kent), most of whom are not -- were similarly unhurried. In 1953, when Saarinen (Dulles Airport's architect) sat down to write his sweetie (the writer Aline Bernstein, whom he would later wed) he went on for 12 pages.

His letter, all in capitals, has crisp perspective drawings and architectural details in between its paragraphs. "A Thousand Kisses' " correspondents are artists, after all. They express themselves in pictures -- watercolors, rebuses, little studio sketches, exuberant cartoons -- not just in written words.

Xavier Gonzalez (1898-1993), to take just one example, left small illustrated love notes for Ethel, his wife, almost every day. The papers that he left to the Archives of American Art include many hundreds of them. Almost anything could prompt them -- a memory, a whim or the act of stepping out to get the morning paper. One that's on display shows him struggling home in the pose of Atlas, bowed beneath the towering gray weight of the Sunday New York Times.

In 1939, when passionate Frida Kahlo (who was married at the time to Diego Rivera) wrote her lover, Nikolas Muray, she closed with a red lipstick kiss that sits upon the page like a painting on a wall.

There are many kinds of love. Not all the missives on display are amorous or romantic. The ones that painter Moses Soyer sent in 1940 to his young son, David, who was then at summer camp, are affectionately paternal. Most are loving sketches of the Soyer family cats.

The note on exhibition that Hedy Lamarr sent "Dear Mr. Franz Kline" in 1959 is not a love letter exactly. The Hollywood actress and the New York abstract expressionist had never actually met. But it's close. It's a fan letter. "When I first saw one of your paintings," she begins, "I had to sit down because it did something to me." She closes with a question. "Are you by any chance of Austrian descent -- since I am. Please do let me know."

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