Intimate Paintings By Tennessee Williams Captivate Audiences With Rare Museum Showing

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At the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami Beach, the exhibition Tennessee Williams: Playwright and Painter, an intimate showing of nine exquisitely rare paintings by one of America's greatest playwrights, created by Williams in Key West during the 1970s. 

From the collection of David Wolkowsky, one of Williams' closest friends contributed to the history of Jews in the state Florida. He was also a prominent Key West developer who owned a private island called Ballast Key (nine miles from Key West), and the Pier House Resort.

Long known as "Mr. Key West," David Wolkowsky, the famed scion of Florida's pioneer Jewish family that helped to settle Key West in the 1800s, has loaned his paintings by close friend Tennessee Williams to the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU for their premiere in Miami Beach.


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This is one of the few times they have been exhibited outside of Key West.

Both idyllic locations were the scene of many glamorous gatherings hosted by David and Tennessee, including parties for Hollywood luminaries, heads of state, and society's crème-de-la-crème.

If these paintings could talk, oh the stories they'd tell . . . 

The Tidings Brought to Mary at Far Rockaway, Tennessee Williams (1975), oil on canvas. On loan from David Wolkowsky

Subject matter includes the writer's famous cohorts during the 1970s in Key West (including a portrait of a very young Michael York), and personifications from Williams' own poetry, short stories, and characters from his plays.

Billie Holiday songs played in the background while Williams captured different images on his canvas. 

Some of the paintings by Williams feature gay themes. An "open secret" throughout his fabled career, the playwright struggled with societal prejudices from a young age, and the taboos surrounding homosexuality during his lifetime manifested in a number of Williams' paintings. 

She Sang Beyond the Genius of the Sea, by Tennessee Williams (1976), oil on canvas. On loan from David Wolkowsky.

The title is the first line from the poem The Idea of Order at Key West, by Wallace Stevens. The poet made several visits to Key West between 1922-1940, where he befriended Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost, who also lived on the island.

His artwork remains widely popular among collectors, most of these sought-after paintings from the last years of his life are in private hands and rarely seen.

These precious gems are the pride of the Key West Art & Historical Society, and the Miami Beach exhibition (on view through October 7 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU) is an uncommon opportunity to see in person how Williams expressed through painting his feelings about sexuality, loneliness and being gay.

Citizen of World III, by Tennessee Williams (1970s), oil on canvas board. (R) On loan from David Wolkowsky. The young man depicted in this painting is symbolic of Williams' acceptance about becoming a target due to his sexuality.

The Blaze of the Moment, by Tennessee Williams (1970s), (L) oil on canvas

On loan from David Wolkowsky

Most of these sought-after paintings from the last years of his life are in private hands and rarely seen.

David Wolkowsky, who still lives in Key West and is almost 100, is from one of the earliest Jewish Families of Florida, and their history is documented as part of the Jewish Museum of Florida's permanent collection about the history of Jews in the State of Florida. Wolkowsky is revered as a Key West original with a "campy sense of style, whose name every local knows."

Williams was often found at Wolkowsky's private, celeb-drenched affairs. Guests included the likes of Truman Capote, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and members of the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Mellon families. According to Key West lore, Wolkowsky was notorious for serving plain hot dogs, white wine and potato chips to his famous guests, while Tennessee painted and drank red wine. 

Le Solitaire, by Tennessee Williams (1976), oil on canvas board. On loan from David Wolkowsky. Le Solitaire depicts a melancholy feeling of aloneness. A vulnerable man walks with his hands on his hips, in the dark.

Most of these sought-after paintings from the last years of his life are in private hands and rarely seen.

David Wolkowsky, who still lives in Key West and is almost 100, is from one of the earliest Jewish Families of Florida, and their history is documented as part of the Jewish Museum of Florida's permanent collection about the history of Jews in the State of Florida. Wolkowsky is revered as a Key West original with a "campy sense of style, whose name every local knows."

A signed portrait from Tennessee Williams, inscribed to David Wolkowsky, reads: "Dear David - It's been one hell of a trip. Love, Tennessee"

Williams was often found at Wolkowsky's private, celeb-drenched affairs. Guests included the likes of Truman Capote, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and members of the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Mellon families. According to Key West lore, Wolkowsky was notorious for serving plain hot dogs, white wine and potato chips to his famous guests, while Tennessee painted and drank red wine. 

"The story behind these paintings, and the close friendship between Wolkowsky and Williams, is just one example of the many unexpected treasures in the rich history of Jewish culture in the State of Florida, spanning four centuries," said Susan Gladstone, the Executive Director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.

"The fact that Williams painted, much less that he painted in Key West, is a surprise to many and his paintings have mostly remained outside of the public eye. We are honored to have these works here at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, and to be one of the few museums that David Wolkowsky has selected to exhibit these works outside of their Key West home," adds Gladstone.

Ballast Key Island

Read more about the life of David Wolkowsky and his contributions to the history of Florida, in "This Man Is An Island," written by Michael Adno -bittersoutherner.com/this-man-is-an-island-david-wolkowsky-key-west/

Tennessee Williams' plays during the 1940s and 1950s were innovative, confrontational, and presented audiences with controversial subject matter such as deep, dark family secrets, Southern Gothic themes, and other taboos that had never been seen on the stage before. 

Tennessee Williams and David Wolkowsky in Key West (circa 1960s)

His Southern dramas, The Glass Menagerie, A Street Car Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin  Roof were blockbusters that were adapted into iconic films.

Williams single-handedly introduced Marlon Brando to the American theater, and some of his other leading stars included Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis.

Tennessee Williams in Key West

For more than 30 years, Williams lived part-time and wrote in a small cottage on Duncan Street in Key West, and took up oil painting in the 1960s. On his patio, he would sketch friends, acquaintances, various literary characters and authors. Guests would often visit his home on Duncan street and purchase his recently created paintings. 

By the beginning of the 1960s, American theater shifted, and Williams' new plays were not as popular. In 1963, his lifetime partner Frank Merlo died of lung cancer in Key West. The years following Merlo's death were difficult for Williams although he continued to write until his own death in 1983. His literary career includes plays, short stories and novels. As a writer, Williams was persistent and tireless. His later plays strove towards innovation and bold experimentation and continue to be revived and performed today. 

Like most writers, William's life was fraught with hardships and struggles.

Upon viewing these paintings, it is clear that painting provided solace and refuge for one of America's most celebrated playwrights.


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In this exhibition, Williams pays homage to his own literary works (including his first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone), writers he admired (Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud and Wallace Stevens), and a portrait of a very young Michael York, who starred in the 1973 production of Williams' Out Cry. Of significance is the fact these works were created during the 1970s, a progressive era for artists, activists, and forward thinking, with the notion of liberation being key.

David Wolkowsky, scion of the pioneer Jewish family that settled in Key West in the 1800s

These rare paintings now on view in Miami Beach at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU through October 7 capture the essence of a strong and independent artist living in a particular time and place. 

The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU serves as a major cultural attraction and source of information for a wide audience of residents, tourists, students and scholars of all ages and backgrounds from throughout the state, nation, and the world.

Located in a former synagogue that housed Miami Beach's first Jewish congregation, the museum's restored 1936 Art Deco building and 1929 original synagogue are both on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 301 building features nearly 80 stained glass windows, a copper dome, marble bimah and many Art Deco features including chandeliers and sconces. The Jewish Museum of Florida is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and holidays. Admission: Adults $6; Seniors $5; Families $12; Members and children under 6 always free; Saturdays-Free. For more information call 305-672-5044 or visit www.jmof.fiu.edu

The Museum is supported by individual contributions, foundations, memberships and grants from the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the Miami-Dade County Tourist Development Council, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners and the City of Miami Beach, Cultural Affairs Program, Cultural Arts Council, and the Funding Arts Network. 

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