We have a real shortage of mad geniuses these days. There are poor souls like the folk songwriter Daniel Johnston—whose struggles with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were chronicled affectingly in the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston—but the nearest we come to a genuine eccentric in the popular consciousness is Kanye West.
Walter Inglis Anderson is a truer example of the troubled, brilliant artist, a trope that featured so prominently in Romantic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries. Born in New Orleans in 1903 and trained in Modernist painting techniques at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the ‘20s, Anderson fell under the sway of radical spiritualists George Gurdjieff and Alfred Richard Orage during a tour of Europe.
Like Daniel Johnston, Anderson was wracked by schizophrenia, so perhaps it’s no wonder that a more perfect union of the spirit would appeal to him. He spent time in and out of mental institutions during the 1940s, struggling with professional disappointment, depression, and psychotic breaks. He attempted a number of escapes from sanitoriums, going so far as dangling himself out of a window while tied to his bedsheets one day, drawing birds on the side of the building with a bar of soap.
That choice of subject matter isn’t surprising, given Anderson’s interests. The troubled artist’s paintings are striking in their vivid depiction of awe at the natural world. Like fellow Romantics Rilke and Whitman, Anderson had a breathless fascination with the transcendence of life’s rich pageant. Anderson’s shocking erudition—his writing makes him seem like a character out of Faulkner, particularly the doomed genius Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury—was dedicated to finding the ways natural beauty had replicated itself in human art and science, from cave art to ancient Egyptian architecture.
The Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts in Gadsden is presenting an exhibition of Anderson’s paintings, Walter Anderson: Everything I See Is New and Strange, that encompasses that spirit of wonder and dark genius. The center is located at 501 Broad St., Gadsen, AL 35901. The exhibition runs through October 28th. 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. $6. For more information, call (256) 543-2787.