FROM FASCINATION TO DESPERATION
Congdon’s link with his homeland became increasingly discontinuous and conflicted after the war. While Italy continued to offer him a welcoming refuge, America still had an ambiguous claim on him, in a play of attraction and repulsion.
He left Providence knowing only that he wanted to abandon the rigid discipline of New England and dive into the complex and throbbing life of New York. The Bowery represented the first stage of his immersion in the city. In an area of decaying slums, a place of poverty, vice, death and suffering, he looked for the same evil to redeem that he had seen in Bergen Belsen. His decision to live in the Bowery further emphasized his desire to rebel against his roots, to proclaim his difference. In this ‘little Naples’, where every day was a struggle for survival, William also found a small community of friends, who comforted and supported him in the first steps of his artistic adventure.
«The umbilical connection to my family and my upbringing was so strong and I didn’t have the strength to cut off from it by myself. I just had the experience of war behind me that demanded expression but then however I needed something to give me the strength (…) I could not be with the rich and I had to be with the dead, because I was dead. (…) I wanted to rub out the Victorian elegance of my origins with the rigor and power of my work, of pen on paper.
[My] heart, changed by the terror and suffering of a war, ‘cried’ the bloody buildings of New York’s slums: my first oil paintings were dripping of colors, liquids, like the blood of my innards.
I didn’t choose the places. A prophetic instinct told me where to find the image that was awaiting me. I ran any distance to take possession of the evangelical pearl. Once I’d grabbed it, I ran back to my studio (…) I have never abandoned a place, I would always carry it with me and put it into my paintings as an extension of it.»
Having quickly moved to a prestigious thirtieth floor Park Avenue apartment, his vision of the city broadened. From the decaying facades of the Bowery buildings, his visions expanded: more than mere ‘urban landscapes’, Congdon’s dense criss-crossings seem to pile up over the soul of the city, almost to the point of making it disappear.
«For me the facades of the poor tenements became the face of the city: all a network of black in the night, contorted and suspended in distorted and fluctuating lights which I incised in order to destroy.»
Congdon’s painting brought out the human by representing the environment and community in which he lived, rather than the individual himself. Two places as different as Naples and New York are connected by the same perception of the city as the expression of the totality of the aspirations and disappointments of its people: the city as a mirror of human destiny and at the same time of the personal destiny of William Congdon.
«I always paint what is and not what I see.»
Black dominated Congdon’s ‘urban’ paintings, spreading to bury the entire city. This was not just meant as a condemnation of the poverty and injustice of New York City, whose immense energy and attractiveness are not entirely suffocated by the paintings. In that wounded and ghostly black lies the deep intuition that made him an artist, destined to explode in ever more mature paintings: evil threatens all beauty, evil is everywhere, «most of all in those who feel horror when they see it, as if they themselves were not capable of it.»«Over the death which I created of the Black City arose an orange moon. This moon which rose unconsciously from the depths of my spiritual need was to become, although in various forms, the symbol and search of my salvation.»