Girl with magnifier

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The flowering heart

I have been an art lover since a very young age. I was sketching and painting at the age of four or five, was suspended from the third grade when someone looked at my desk cubby and discovered a few nude female drawings I had drawn. Nothing lurid but provocative enough to keep me home for three days.

One of the saddest things in my life was when I got my cancer and had to give up oil painting, there is nothing else quite like it. Miss that turpentine smell, boy.

In any case I went from an art creator to an art curator somewhere along the line. Not quite the same but it still allows me to ply my critical eye and make a decent living.

I love art, signed, unsigned, what have you. I thought I was really slick once when I sold an unsigned painting of Monhegan, Maine for twenty two thousand dollars. I was less ebullient when I discovered that the painting had resold for a half a million six months later, turned out it was a Henrietta Shore.

My philosophy and criteria is more about quality of a work than authorship but this approach doesn't always pay the bills. Still, every human being is capable of producing something beautiful artistically at some point in their lives, this I truly believe.

Some paintings are cut and dried affairs, wrapped up tight as a drum, others lead to disquiet and searching, like jigsaw puzzles missing a few pieces. This is just such a painting. It leaves me with more questions than answers, me being a curious sort. The kind of prescient painting that is pretty far ahead of its time and will take a while for people to catch up to it. Or a painting that perhaps stands slightly outside of time.

Bill found it in Hillsborough I believe. He kindly let me buy in for half.

Tempera on paper. About 24" x 18". A bird, or perhaps a snake, biting its tale, with iconography reminiscent of the designs of historic pueblo pottery.

It is titled lower left and signed lower right Mary Navratil November, 1956.

I had two major reactions to the painting or maybe three. 

The first was that it was remarkably hip, some seventy years after its date of creation and would look good in any modern setting. A Jim Dine type of image, with more teeth and texture, bit less sugar.

The second was wondering if the artist was influenced by or connected to the New Mexico Transcendental Painting Group, those early southwest abstractionists and symbolists that included Bisstram and Raymond Jonson.

Founded in 1938, their impact was huge in the southwest. 

Works by these artists, like Agnes Pelton, are now worth a fortune and only accelerating in value.

The third reaction was very personal, it drew me back to the books by the esteemed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Psyche and Symbol and Man and his symbols.

One of the books had a very similar image to the flowering heart in one of its plates, I forget which one.

But I remember that it showed the snake eating its tail, the ancient hermetic depiction of Ouroboros. 

I believe that the particular plate showed a white lotus in the center of the image.

I remember the image quite vividly because there was a time about thirty years ago when I was getting bombarded by this image, tangibly and conceptually in a variety of forms and emanations for several weeks, in dreams and in waking reality. But back to that in a minute.

The fourth question obviously was, who was this artist, this Mary Navratil? I did some hunting and sleuthing and have a basic framework but one that once again, leaves more questions than answers. An artist of considerable talent, who somehow has fallen off the map and escaped scrutiny.

She was born in Iowa in either 1899 or 1901, I would guess the former as many of the distaff persuasion like to knock a year or two off their age, if I may be so bold. In 1940 we find her in Las Vegas, New Mexico, designated on the census as a catechist with six other novitiates.

Now I have got two differing opinions from my Catholic friends as to what a catechist is? My friend who studied as a nun said that it was an archaic term for those that taught the catechism. Another friend said that it was an intermediate step before full blown sisterhood. I have no idea.

But I have a client who grew up in Las Vegas, an old man and he says that he went to this particular address as a kid to receive catholic teaching and he may have even remembered Mary.

Navratil is a Czech name. I may have found something in my research that intimated that she had been in a failed marriage prior to the sisterhood but I can not be sure. But she has left Iowa and is now working for the church on the other side of the world at the age of 39. Go figure.

There are a lot of blanks to fill in but the next time I can catch up with her is the 1960's. 

She is no longer solely an artist, she is also apparently a writer now and a resident and distinguished grant recipient of the Wurlitzer Foundation on 418a Canyon Rd.

Why Mary?

Why did you stop painting and start writing? Or did you stop? How much painting did you actually do? Where can I find your writing? Were you always religiously involved? Why did you resign from the Old Santa Fe Association in 1969? And where did you end up? Were you a Jungian?

I found an almost unintelligible snippet in a Taos Newspaper about a 1967 one man show she had that fills in a little but is unfortunately behind a paywall :
...a one man show of artwork by Mary Navratil has been hung in the offices of the New Mexico arts 120 East Marcy  the show will continue until april Miss Navratil is a native of Santa Fe, she entered the Field of Fine arts immediately after receiving her degree in Interior decoration from the California School of Fine Art now the San Francisco Art in 1946 she  received the Abraham Rosenberg traveling Fellowship awarded annually by the San Francisco As foreign travel was closed that she used the Grant to return to Santa Fe for research in Indian color and design through the medium of her study was made under the guidance of Kenneth director of the Laboratory of Anthrop her work since that time has been acquired for permanent collections of the Oakland Museum of Art and the museum of new as well as by private and has been a consistent prizewinner in juried shows of the San Francisco Museum of Art and she has just finished a one year residential Grant from the Helene Wurlitzer for painting and research which is reflected in the present exhibit of paintings and miss Navratils work for years has been philosophical in involved wholly with the archetypes and of the psyche, basic images of unconscious imbedded in man since earliest times and usually deemed religious in her Effort has Hen to organically through individual such images designs (sic)...
Answers a few questions and confirms some suppositions. I am not done looking by any means. My curiosity is aroused now. The New Mexico Archives has some letters from her from 1960.

Unfortunately I can not access them at this time. But I will find a way. Hunt's not over.

late find, she wins an award in San Francisco, in 1958, picked by Richard Diebenkorn.

Women's Board Purchase Awards went to William
H. Brown and Mary Navratil, San Francisco, and
Sylvia Vince, Oakland, from Richard Diebenkorn "s
selection. Glenn Wessels of Berkeley, whose work was
selected by Peter Bios, also received a purchase award.
From Wilfrid Zogbaum's selection, Manuel Neri of
San Francisco and Carol Haerer of Berkeley received
purchase awards.

Why am I so intrigued by this artwork?  I am not sure. Well, it is a very archetypical image that reaches to the depths of our unconscious. Its iconography is timeless and it strikes a chord with me for some reason. As a painter who also became a writer perhaps I feel she is a sympatico? 

From https://jungcurrents.com/a-jungian-shaggy-snake-story: 

The Ouroboros or Uroborus is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail.

The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (compare with phoenix). It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished. The ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus. It is also often associated with Gnosticism, and Hermeticism.

Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche. The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego “dawn state”, depicting the undifferentiated infancy experience of both mankind and the individual child. 

From Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 14 para. 513)
The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.

The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.

The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which […] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious.
From Brittanica:
Ouroboros, emblematic serpent of ancient Egypt and Greece represented with its tail in its mouth, continually devouring itself and being reborn from itself. A gnostic and alchemical symbol, Ouroboros expresses the unity of all things, material and spiritual, which never disappear but perpetually change form in an eternal cycle of destruction and re-creation.

In the 19th century a vision of Ouroboros gave the German chemist August Kekule von Stradonitz the idea of linked carbon atoms forming the benzene ring.

Kekule (1829-1896) had a dream or vision that gave him a glimpse into the molecular construction of the benzene ring.

‘I was sitting writing at my textbook; but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair towards the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gambolling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightening I awoke; and this time I also spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.’ [August KekulĂ©, 1890]
I am starting to go far afield now. Somebody please find me some more information about Mary Navratil, okay? This painting has got me going...

The serpent Ouroboros surrounding a circle with lettering in Latin and Hebrew, pen and watercolour drawing from Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona (late 18th century; called the Black Book) by M.L. Cyprianus. 


Wicki said...

Regarding oil painting materials…. Several fine painters I know have switched to water miscible oils and find them very satisfactory. Clean up with water and soap. Thin with water or non toxic mediums. Many brands including Winsor Newton and Holbein.

Just a thought.

Wonderful article….went to the Agnes Pelton exhibit in Palm Springs early this year and it was stunning. I was surprised at how much I liked her more conventional paintings ( landscapes for her bread and butter). They were full of life and light.

Anonymous said...

This painting really hit me in the solar plexes. I did a little
digging and found something interesting. If you have a copy of the
catalog "The Spiritual in Art 1890-1985" from LACMA 1986-87, turn to
page 246-247 where there is a diagram by Jakob Bohme from his writing
"Forty Questions of the Soul". Mary was well read in spiritual
philosophy and probably familiar with his work. In the text is his
explanation of the diagram. If you don't have a copy, I'll bring you
my copy. We can have a cup of coffee and chew the fat about this. I
think you will be as surprised as I was. Also in her painting there
is a second bird head to the left. Have you been able to find any
other paintings of hers? Let me know when you have time. Do you have
the original painting where I might see it?

Ken Seals said...

What a fascinating and well researched story. Thanks! The human mind is a very powerful thing.

Mars Delapp said...

I remember Mary Navratil. She was a friend of my mother's, until my mother decided she needed to end the friendship.

I recently found some artwork of her's and searched on her name to see if I could figure out if this artwork had any value. I would like to sell it.

Blue Heron said...

Please contact me, Mars. I am interested in knowing more about her and seeing and purchasing more artwork. azurebirds@gmail.com