Ludicrous Irony: What the Masks of Grace Hartigan’s Grand Street Brides Both Conceal and Reveal
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Grace Hartigan, who is sometimes viewed as the “mother” of pop art, nonetheless rejected the “deadpan” irony of that artistic movement. Yet in her mid-century masterpiece, Grand Street Brides (1954), she expresses the ludicrousness she saw in the male-dominated society custom of the wedding, which she perceived as “an empty ritual.” This thesis seeks to articulate the particular species of irony expressed in Grace Hartigan’s Grand Street Brides (1954). The thesis considers three contexts in this interpretation: First, Hartigan’s own words; secondly, biographical information, including moments from Hartigan’s background, the occasion and provenance of the painting, and artistic influences on Hartigan; and, finally, the author’s own face-to-face encounter with the painting at an off-site museum storage site. For the first context, the thesis relies on Hartigan’s diary entries, from The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951–1955, published shortly after her death, and from interviews, including those conducted later in her life. Here we learn of the express intent of Hartigan’s purpose in Grand Street Brides, from her admission that she was imitating the court scenes of the famous Spanish ironists Goya and Velazquez to clues about her mood at the time of painting. Elements of Hartigan’s own life, including her fascination with masks, her personal relationships and marriages, and her study of the masters provide important background information for understanding her purpose in Grand Street Brides. In particular, the occasion and provenance of the painting, including specific details about her fascination with masks and with bridal shops on the Lower East Side. Lastly, a face-to-face encounter with the life-size Brides reveals previously unnoted details, such as the similarity of the hands of the brides to Matisse’s Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg (1914), the freedom of the brushstrokes, and the ambiguity of the expressions on the faces of the Brides. In the end, the thesis concludes that Hartigan’s particular species of ironic expression is layered and nuanced, lying beneath the surface and between the extremes of the iconic bride and its opposites: between beautiful and grotesque, white and black, happy and depressed. Hartigan’s Brides sit and stand in complex, silent protest against the “empty ritual” imposed upon women in the male dominated society of mid-century America.