A Gelett Burgess Sampler:
Ethics and Aesthetics
Introduction by Alfred Jan
Aside from writing limericks about purple cows and naughty children, and full length mystery novels, Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) produced much in aesthetics, including art criticism, watercolor paintings, and artist magazines in his Bohemian days. Less well known are his fictional and non-fiction ethical writings instructing us how to live and behave well. Undergirding the entire output, however, is his philosophy of humor which he used to prick the pretentions of the Decadent movement early on, and American popular culture later on as he matured.
Trained as a civil engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Burgess taught topographic drawing at the University of California at Berkeley during the mid-1890s until he was fired for tearing down a statue of a prominent teetotaling dentist. This freed him to form a group of San Francisco artists and writers called “Les Jeunes” (the youngsters) with Bruce Porter, Willis Polk, and Ernest Peixotto comprising the core members. They participated in aesthetic conversations surrounding the European Decadent movement whose slogan was “Art for Art’s sake”(in addition to obsessing over sex and death), exemplified by their manifesto Against Nature (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. The novel’s hero, Jean Des Esseintes, practiced an extreme form of art for art’s sake by withdrawing from human contact and categorizing everything in his house aesthetically: perfumes, flowers, books, jewelry, pets, to name a few. He found this lifestyle ultimately unsustainable, and on the advice of his physician, rejoined society.
As young Bohemians, Burgess and Porter created The Lark (1895), a 24 issue avant-garde periodical made from bamboo paper containing drawings, essays, and poetry. In 1896, Burgess went further with the one issue Le Petit Journal des Refusées, a trapezoidal shaped magazine with unusual textual layout and bizarre artwork. Only one issue was printed on different colored and patterned wallpaper and cut so it could not stand up on a shelf next to normal magazines. But even prior to The Lark, Burgess had painted watercolors with accompanying short rhymes in a sketchbook presented to his mentor and co-editor Bruce Porter. Dated December 25, 1894, it was probably a Christmas present, but Yuletide cheer it was not. Drawn in black line and filled in with watercolor, he depicted outré scenes with balloon shoes, riding tables across a room, crawling on an invisible bridge over a street, and legs breaking off in bed. Looking like children’s book material, these darkly whimsical paintings tap subconscious fears, nightmare material. Several were reproduced for various The Lark issues, but reduced size and lack of color diluted their impact.
Like many artists of that time and since, Burgess soon left for New York and Europe. In the early 1900s he was one of the first Americans to publish art criticism on Matisse and the Fauves. He exhibited a different series of watercolors called “Subjective Symbolism” at Alfred Stieglitz’ famous 291 Gallery during November and December 1911, the same year of Picasso’s first American show at the same gallery. Incidentally, critics called Picasso’s work “gibberings of a lunatic”, while Stieglitz praised them as “perfect as a Bach fugue”. Stieglitz was the first American to exhibit European avant-garde modernists, and Burgess’ review indicated how shocked he, as a Bohemian, was (let alone the general public) by Matisse’s female portraits painted in bright reds, greens, and blues.
Burgess’ ethical writings include examinations of human nature and what constitutes good behavior. While his books on Goops discussed proper comportment by children, Are You a Bromide (1906) and Have You an Educated Heart? (1923) dealt with adult actions. Bromides exhibited conventional, hackneyed, boring speech and activity, while Sulphides took chances and engaged the world in artistic and unpredictable ways. The educated heart can empathize with others and act accordingly. He also wrote about gender relations (including two short stories in this collection), and while Florence Lundborg and Carolyn Wells contributed to The Lark, his attitudes towards women are controversial. Books like Why Men Hate Women (1927) and The Maxims of Noah (1913) would draw fire from feminists, but to discuss these writings in depth requires separate treatment.
By the late 1910s and 1920s, Burgess had left Bohemia and appeared in mainstream magazines such as Judge, Harpers, and Saturday Evening Post, a far cry from his early San Francisco days. Even Reader’s Digest of the 1940s published “Husband, Can You Take It?”, “The Simple Art of Writing”, and others. Yet his sense of humor remained intact, especially in his satirical Judge stories which poked fun at sex and detective stories of the time. Indeed, even at the outset, his nonsense poems were not meaningless as in “no sense”, but served to undercut the overly serious Decadents. It was as if he was saying to Jean Des Esseintes, “Hey, lighten up, Dude!”
Reference: Information on 291 Gallery is from Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough, Washington Gallery of Art, 2001
Thanks to Richard A. Lupoff of Surinam Turtle Press for scanning and preparation and believing in this project. Thanks also to Robert D. Haines, Jr., owner of San Francisco’s Argonaut Book Shop for supplying me with so much material on Gelett Burgess.