“Portrait of Viola Dana”

  • Portrait of silent era movie star Viola Dana
  • Portrait of Viola Dana

“Portrait of Viola Dana”

(oil and collage from recycled materials)

“If you have it [love], you don’t need to have anything else, and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter much what else you have.”
James M. Barrie

“I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself.”
Walter Anderson

My memory is one of my greatest gifts in life. It’s a treasure trove of images, facts, and most importantly faces. It’s also a bit of a curse because my brain always prompts me to connect the above so everything could be sorted out properly. There are times when I would remember a painting I saw as a small child and I just have to know the artist and the name of the artwork. That’s when I obsessively start searching for answers based on nothing more than my visual memory. I usually find what I’m searching for. After that I can rest easy. My memory is now labeled, sorted, and filed away.

One night, I was thinking about an American silent movie I saw as a kid. As you can imagine we didn’t get to see many of those in the Soviet Union. Unless it portrayed some undesirable side of the many evils of capitalism that is. “The Kid” was allowed for the obvious reasons. “Flesh and the Devil” not so much… lol

But I digress. Once in a while, they showed old American movies at the university my father worked at. That was the place where I first ‘met’ the black and white Mickey Mouse as well as Charlie Chaplin. It was one of the Chaplin’s movies I was thinking about that evening. I remembered the face of the actress who played in the movie, but couldn’t remember her name nor the name of the movie. So I decided to look at photos of the 1920s starlets to figure out which one of them was in that film.

As I was looking at photos of numerous silent era movie stars I came upon a photo of a young woman whose gaze I found mesmerizing. I slowly examined her features. She was hardly beautiful. Her nose was too big, her lips too small (by the modern full-lips-are-sexy standards), and yet I found her absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t stop staring into her eyes. Although I’ve heard her name before (Viola Dana) I knew nothing about her life.

After a bit of research I found out that Viola Dana’s husband died of pneumonia and the next man she found love with (an aviator) died in a plane crush right in front of her eyes. The above information made me understand why I was so drawn to her photo. Having lived through a tragedy is what connected us through time and space. There was the ‘pain of knowing’ in her gaze. It’s the look many people acquire after losing a loved one. It’s almost invisible to the rest of the world, but the ones who are familiar with it can sense it and identify in others.

I wanted to paint Ms. Dana’s portrait. I did. It was very easy. I knew her stare all too well, since I’ve seen it so many times in my own mirror.