An Affair in the Islands (1972)
22.0 x 30.0 x
University Club of Chicago
Westermann worked in logging camps as a rail worker in the Pacific Northwest. During World War II he served as a gunner in the U.S. Marine Corps on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, witnessing numerous kamikaze attacks and the sinking of several ships. He toured the Far East as an acrobat with the United Service Organization, and enrolled in The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947.
An Affair in the Islands (c. 1972) is from a suite of lithographs that Westermann created at the Landfall Press in 1972. Within his oeuvre, this is Westermann’s third suite of lithographs, created in the later portion of his career.
This set of lithographs is distinct for Westermann’s bold and complex color combinations. In An Affair in the Islands Westermann included some of his well-known imagery, such as his self-portrait, the death ship, and the female nude, into a tropic landscape that is rich with biographical, biblical, and historical qualities.
In the island scene, a female and male figure stand on the shoreline of a tropical body of water. The figures both reach their hands out towards each other, but their impending embrace is haunted by a looming presence across the scene.
In between the two figures is Westermann’s black, dimly lit death-ship docked in the water behind them. The death ship was a reoccurring symbol used throughout Westermann’s career, and its impending presence alludes to his WWII experience of kamikaze attacks, which sunk or damaged ships and left soldiers dead or abandoned in treacherous waters.
The death ship can also represent hopelessness, alienation, and the trauma of war. In this composition, light emanates from inside the circular windows of the ship and illuminates the blue water below, signaling life inside the ship and alluding to a war torn reality that is creeping towards the island paradise.
The horizon line where the ship rests is a thick atmosphere teeming with exploding volcanoes, rich red, yellow, blue, and orange colors, and swelling clouds of grey smoke. In depicting a horizon filled with a symbol of death and war and a rupturing landscape, Westermann created a sense of forthcoming danger that contrasts the seemingly peaceful island atmosphere where the male and female are awaiting to embrace.
On the shore, Westermann drew his self-portrait in black and white. Including his self-portrait is in keeping with many other works in his career. As the epitome of a civilized man, he is dressed in full suit and tie, with his glossy hair combed back, bowtie snug on his neck, and suit cut tight.
Aside from the red cummerbund, the colorless figure contrasts the rich colors in the composition, which disconnects his self-portrait from the island and female. Westermann’s portrait walks forward with his right arm extended outward and his right foot raised to take a step, frozen in procession to greet his female counterpart.
On the left side of the shore, a nude woman with long flowing hair represents the trope of the “island native.” The woman has been identified by other historians as Westermann’s wife, Joanna. Wide-eyed and rosy cheeked, the female looks towards Westermann’s portrait as she also extends her hand and foot in motion to meet her counterpart. In contrast to the male figure, she is yellow with red accents and her nude body is more naturally full than his linear form.
There is no volcanic eruptions or apparent danger on the island, only flourishing plant-life and a small starfish to enhance the fertile tropical island environment. The composition could have references to the Christian biblical story of Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden, which leads to their banishment. However, that reference is complicated by the presence of death and war through the symbol of the death ship.
The rich symbolic quality of the composition opens an array of narratives to be unpacked from the encounter. Will this island scene be similar to the Garden of Eden, in that the man and woman succumb to temptation and are banished from paradise? Or, is this impending embrace thwarted from the beginning by the violent presence of war and death that looms in the water close behind the island encounter?