From Robert Natkin, A Retrospective: 1952-1996. Exhibition catalogue, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 1997

In his Hitchcock series, Natkin’s preoccupation remains the creation of hidden narrative, not through the depiction of conventional subject matter but rather through shifts in color and value. The Hitchcock paintings overflow with physical drama. Many of Natkin’s familiar forms now seem superimposed; they often swim boldly across the surface of the canvas. They shout at the viewer, unlike the buried, saturated squiggles and spots of Natkin’s Bern paintings that tend to speak in muted tones.

Ever since his weekly trips to the movie theatre as a young child, Natkin has been a cinema devotee. His Hitchcock series is a visual homage to the late director. Natkin has long been a fan of Hitchcock’s films which, despite their entertaining surface plots, teem with darker undertones and contradictions. As the artist points out, the director succeeds, despite the playfulness of his films, to depict and romanticize man’s more somber side. Like Hitchcock, Natkin likes to interlock pleasure–and beauty–with mystery and paradox.

- Leda Natkin Nelis

From the artist’s introduction to Robert Natkin: Recent Paintings from the Hitchcock Series.” Exhibition catalogue, Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Ltd., New York, 1985

The longing for redemption runs deep in Western culture. We enter a church, art museum, or movie theater as we are, hoping to emerge as we would like to be. This need to fix the wretched self–like irritant sand in an oyster producing a pearl–can compel an artist toward the realization of a work of art. A central dilemma for many in this world, and for artists in particular, is the unremitting tension between what we are (or perceive ourselves to be) and what we strive to become.

In Genet’s play The Balcony, set in a whorehouse, a house of illusion and allusion, the quest for redemption is mocked and exaggerated through the acting out of sexual fantasies. Genet interprets the brothel as an ironic place of possible reparation, not unlike a church, where damaged spirits seek repair. In much the same way, the art museum, with its muddle of moral, monetary, and aesthetic values and its promise of pleasure and enlightenment, reflects Genet’s brothel on the one hand and a house of worship on the other.

Van Gogh tried to make a place for himself as an artist after abortive attempts first at being a minister then an art dealer. Unable to reconcile contradictory intentions, he was brought to despair and anger which he took out on himself–first in self-mutilation and finally in suicide. Similarly, Rothko worked to hone an art of sweeping religious feelings but was unable to accept the totality of his revelation–an art that would have people “weeping in reverence” before his images but “throwing up when eating in those glamorous restaurants and other chic interiors” for which several of this paintings were commissioned.

Cheap literature and schlock movies often sentimentalize the artist’s conflict between aesthetic ideals and demands of the marketplace. These conflicts, although real, cloak more fearsome maladies beneath the surface. Deep aggressive and destructive impulses directed toward the world and the audience can ignite the urge to make art. The wish to assail and to maim the viewer may operate in concert with the wish to uplift and nurture. Sometimes when I am painting I hear my own breathing–urgent, animal-like–and expect to look down and find my feet are cloven hooves standing in goat shit on the studio floor.

Van Gogh, as well as Rothko, strove for an art that would heal and redeem the human spirit. Indeed, Van Gogh’s actions suggest that he hoped through art to make not just his work but his very person into a revered object. This hope was shattered by his failure to accept duplicity not only in the world around him but also in himself; he seemed unable to come to terms with those baser drives that, along with loftier motives, inspired his efforts. Belief, myth, hope, illusion, when they die, leave “reality” grotesque and overwhelming.

There is a Hindu legend about the god Shiva and his goddess, Parvati. An audacious demon appeared before Shiva and demanded that he hand over his goddess. Shiva opened his mystical third eye in the middle of his forehead; a lightening bolt hit the ground and suddenly there was a second demon, larger and fiercer than the first, a big, hard beast with lion-like head, hair streaming in all directions, the very incarnation of hunger, brought into being to devour the first demon. The first demon threw himself on Shiva’s mercy. It’s a theological rule that when you submit yourself wholly to a god’s mercy the god cannot refuse to save you. So Shiva had now to guard and protect the first demon from the second, which left the second without meat to quell his hunger, and in anguish he asked Shiva “Whom do I eat” to which the god replied, “Well, why not eat yourself?” No sooner said than done. The second demon, starting with his feet, teeth gnashing in frenzy, chewed up his own legs, his belly chest, and neck. Only the face remained. “And the god thereupon was enchanted for here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life which lives on itself.” To this lion and sun-like visage, this fierce vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, “I shall call you Face of Glory. You shall shine above the doors to all temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever to knowledge of me.”

I love this myth about the demon feeding on itself; it expresses so well life’s contradictions: creation and destruction, together always.

Alfred Hitchcock stood before the movie business–a self-devouring demon if ever there was one–and controlled it with the grace of Shiva. For years appreciated merely as an entertainer, a purveyor of languorous romance and heroic bravado spiced with horror, he is increasingly respected for the power and originality of his cinematic strategies. What is it that lifts his work beyond the routine “who done it” and spy genres? His films, which can be viewed over and over again, at first, seem slight; but with closer study one discovers true terrible contradictory feelings underneath. Through his playfulness, dark acts of lust and violence become tolerable, even enjoyed and romanticized.

Hitchcock dealt with life’s inescapable and frightening contradictions in a manner much different from Rothko and Van Gogh. There is no self-mutilation; there need not be. He created myths to dramatize and celebrate love and horror. Hitchcock accepts and seeks to reveal what is known and intuited at all levels. Nothing gets denied. If there is a price to be paid for complete seeing, it is the dread of contradiction, uncertainty, duplicity; but there Hitchcock dresses in riddle and laughter. The contemplation of his work prepares me to admit and inspires me to accept my collusions with the demons within.

- Robert Natkin