“I’ve got two tickets to paradise.
Won’t you pack your bags, we’ll leave tonight.”
—Eddie Money, 1977
The same year this classic rock song hit the airwaves, the painter Robert Neuman was also considering paradise and how one might get there. Neuman’s thinking, as he told Robert Brown in an Archives of American Art interview in 1991, went like this:
Being involved in thematic attitudes in painting and drawing and art in general, I thought, well, as we see in modern civilization everybody’s trying to get to Paradise somehow, it seems, I thought, how in the world do you do that, do you go in an Oldsmobile, how do you go, how do you get there? So I thought maybe you get there on a medieval barque.1
In one of his most inventive—and adventurous—acts of art, Neuman (1926-2015) embarked on his “Ship to Paradise” series, constructing an old world vessel, rounding up a motley crew, and setting forth upon the seas—and into the sky. Over the next ten years, with the aid of parachutes and a tow, his morphing mythic three-story ship made its wayward voyage across an alternative universe.
While the painter had explored symbolism in his oils, never had he employed imagery of this kind: richly evocative, at times tongue-in-cheek, open-ended and intellectually engaging. In his interview with Brown, Neuman described some of the imagery in Ship to Paradise—Paradise Found.
“There’s a skeleton holding a bucket of tools, six suns in the sky—black suns—and the story is they found Paradise by accident by wrecking the boat on this island. And then when they got there, it turns out the time involved to get to Paradise was longer than the human life-span, therefore I put the skeleton there.”
Part of the appeal of these works is their sheer complexity, a dynamic welter of styles and imagery. Geometric, organic and representational elements often occupy the same pictorial space; and various art-historical echoes occur, from Hokusai’s famous wave to the abstract acrobatics of Kandinsky.
At one point in his interview with Neuman, Brown mentioned the “literary overtone” of the “Ship to Paradise” series. He is referring to the 1983 portfolio of etchings commissioned by August Heckscher (1913-1997) as a contemporary complement to a reprint of Sebastian Brandt’s 1494 Shyp of Fooles with Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut illustrations.2 In his introduction to Neuman’s suite, the Renaissance scholar John Olin highlighted the wonderful absurdity of the voyagers in his images. “They seek ‘paradise’ the wrong way, and their topsy-turvy ship, impeded and encumbered as it is, will never take them there.”3
The “Ship to Paradise” pieces feature elements of the landscape of Mount Desert Island where Neuman took up summer residence in the late 1960s. While not explicit in its reference—and decidedly fantastic in its imagery—Ship to Paradise—Drydock, 1977, conjures the region’s tradition of boat-building.
For all their whimsical qualities, the “Ship to Paradise” pieces are essentially about mankind and its irrational desire to leave one world for another. “I believe art is humanistic in its essence,” Neuman told Brown toward the end of their 1991 interview, “and it should stay that way however it’s presented by the artist.”
The “Ship to Paradise” series remains relevant as we consider the debris that drifts through outer space—or the wreck of the Concordia in 2011. “The photos of that Italian cruise ship continue to haunt us,” one commentator wrote, adding, “How could a trip to paradise go so wrong?” They might have asked Robert Neuman, who addressed this question with vital and visionary brilliance.
[A longer version of this essay first appeared in the catalogue for Robert S. Neuman’s Ship to Paradise at the Heckscher Museum of Art, Aug. 18-Nov. 25, 2012. Little also contributed an essay to the catalogue for “Impulse and Discipline: 60 Years of Painting by Robert S. Neuman, 1950–2010” at the Thorne-Sagendorph Gallery at Keene State College.]
- Interview with Robert Neuman conducted by Robert Brown at the artist’s home in Winchester, Massachusetts, May 1-June 19, 1991. The artist also suggested a Trailways bus as a possible means of conveyance to Paradise.
- Heckscher was a polymath whose roles in life included arts administrator, public servant, journalist, social commentator, man of letters, historian, and sailor. He was also a self-described “printer by avocation,” producing fine limited-edition letterpress publications. See Carl Little, “August Heckscher: A Man about the World—and Mount Desert Island.” Chebacco, Journal of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, vol. 7, 2006-2007.
- John C. Olin (1916-2000) taught history at Fordham University from 1946 to 1986. He specialized in Erasmus and the Catholic Reformation. He and his wife, artist Marian Olin, were summer residents of Little Cranberry Island, Maine.