Medicine Show IV
Medicine Show IV
Oil on canvas
35 3/8 x 40 1/4 in.
Wichita Art Museum, Roland P. Murdock Collection
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
Jack Levine was born in an immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s South End. As a child, he attended art classes at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. By the age of twelve Levine had met Dr. Denman Ross, an art professor at Harvard University, who helped to further his painting career. The rich street life and colorful characters of Levine’s Boston neighborhood were also sources of inspiration. By his eighteenth birthday Levine had exhibited drawings at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, worked for the Federal Art Project of the WPA, had his first one-man show at New York’s Downtown Gallery, and sold paintings to both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. The biting satire of Levine’s The Feast of Pure Reason (1937, Museum of Modern Art, New York), a visual diatribe against corruption, brought him instant national recognition and marked the beginning of a career that has spanned over six decades.
Levine again attacks corruption and deception through satiric means in Medicine Show IV. It is the last in a series of medicine show paintings that treat the theme of the huckster performing his fraudulent operations on a gullible crowd. The charlatan poses center-stage with arms outstretched, radiating confidence in the benefits of his “medicine.” Members of the captivated crowd count their money in anticipation of purchasing a bottle of this suspect elixir. A shadow hides the mountebank’s eyes so that the crowd is unable to gauge his sincerity. Surrounding the man are several scantily clad women who ornament the stage and help to boost sales. According to one critic:
“Levine is mocking power, this time a power far more widely distributed and far more widely given conscious obedience than the usual subjects of his research. The power in question is sex itself. Despite the presence of that commercialized sex we think of as peculiarly American in Medicine Show and the burlesque pictures, the subject goes deeper than that. It is sex in its aspect of ‘human bondage,’ that power for liberation and fulfillment so often used, on a domestic or personal scale, to create and maintain a tyranny over the mind of man.”1
Levine depicts this theatrical event with gusto. Just as the performance mystifies the believing crowd, the viewer is seduced by the jewel-like paint quality and dazzled by a lively arrangement of caricatures accented by shimmering silver tonalities reminiscent of Tintoretto or late Titian. Levine combines detailed highlights with quickly rendered blurry areas of paint that emphasize the fast pace of this urban spectacle. These out-of-focus areas operate as visual metaphors for the questionable nature of the subject. They may also imply a sense of memory or nostalgia.
“I’ve always tried to make some point about charlatans,” Levine said, “in this case, a medicine show, or in some other case, somebody doing card tricks, or pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I’ve always been trying to make a kind of indictment of mysticism and people being fooled, people being gulled.”2 With Levine’s old Boston neighborhood as a backdrop, Medicine Show IV is also suggestive of an earlier era. “I think that in fact what I succeeded in doing in Medicine Show” said Levine, “is expressing a certain nostalgia. There’s a city background which is really South Boston… and all this could have happened around 1935, when I was very young.”3
1. Frank Getlcin, Jack Levine (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966), 24-25.
2. Jack Levine, Jack Levine (New York: Chameleon, 1989), 70.