Buon Appetito
In June of 2013, we have learned of a major Charles Keller work acquired by an important collector (who prefers to remain anonymous). The work is the painting Buon Appetito. The collector writes:
As you can see, the English title, Sorrow of War, is not a faithful translation from Mr Keller's original Italian name. There is a deeply personal reason behind it. I bought this painting from an art collector, who had purchased it at an estate sale.

I have developed an intimate relationship with this painting. The first time I laid my eyes on it, a strange feeling of 'eternal return / deja vu' possessed me. It is quite strange. This artwork was done in Rome when I was a child; the setting is undoubtedly an exquisite Italian dining room. In that time frame, my family was living in a quaint house near the foothill of a tea plantation in Vietnam. The more I look at this painting, the more I remember things. Like a 'Madeleine de Proust' experience, I started remembering a memorable event followed by other events in my childhood, the people who visited our house one morning in the spring of 1968, the dates, the smell, the recurring music, and the eventual crumbling of our world. And then, there was hope...

This painting is extraordinary. It is as relevant to me now as an adult as it was to the people who campaigned passionately for peace around the world during the war in Vietnam in the '60s and '70s. I would be most grateful if you could ask the surviving members of Mr. Keller's family to see if they remember this particular painting, and can shed more light on it.

I came to the US as a young refugee escaping communism in 1980. I learned from his website that Mr. Keller was a lifelong member of the socialist party. It may seem odd that I would even like him. I perceive Mr. Keller was a peace-loving, compassionate artist/humanist rather than someone whose label or party affiliation would have been in conflict with my own or with mainstream America. This is a free country after all, and people should be free to make their own choices. That's why I found the period of McCarthyism in this country a troubling one.

This artwork was in the possession of Mr. John Oliver Crane and Mrs. Sylvia Engel Crane of NYC, I learned from the printed brochure accompanying an art exhibit held at Cornell University in 1976 with a personal note from Mr. Keller to the couple. I surmise that they were friends. According to the information on the internet, Mr. John O. Crane had moved to Rome following his first marriage to an Italian Countess (Teresa Martini Marescotti) in 1929. His family was influential on the modern presidency of Czechkoslovakia. I have read Mr. Crane's Siberia Diary, written in 1921, with great interest. He was a member of a wealthy American family in the gilded age, an embodiment of the social class of the great Gatsby in the Fitzerald novel, and yet he married a left-wing activist.

There are so many interesting things about the painting and the people who associated with the artist that fascinate me. 1969 was a fascinating year. It was the best of times and the worst of times when this painting was created. It was a year of upheavals, of moratoria, of protests around the world, civil rights protests, feminist and gay-rights protests, etc. I would greatly appreciate whatever information the artist's family could share with me.

In response, Katy Keller, Keller's youngest child, writes:
I do recall rather vividly how our attention was brought to the dissonance between gruesome TV images and nonchalant dining.
The collector responds:
I am glad to know that you remember this painting. The photo I sent does not do justice to the actual artwork. There are subtle details that the photo fails to capture. The painting is even more exquisite in the evening under certain lighting experiments. You wrote 'nonchalant dining', which is similar to my first impression. However, when I examined the couple body's language later, my impressions changed...

Buon Appetito is replete with ironies. The sarcastic title implies that the wealthy couple in the dining room are indifferent to the gruesome scene on TV, but that may not be the case here, in my opinion. Dabbing at her tears with a white handkerchief, the lady is unable to share the evening meal with her partner. Her pink champagne flute is still full; a plate of neatly arranged oysters and cutlery on the side remain untouched. They dress up with studied elegance and grace, but their facial expressions are grave and sorrowful. The man is eating, but he doesn't seem to enjoy it. One of his arms is in awkward position. It's their facial expressions that took me back to that unforgettable event of the morning of Jan 30, 1968.

Keller's middle child, Dan Keller, writes:
Thank you for your kind words about my father's painting. It was a pleasure to see it again after many decades; thanks for sending the image.

I agree that the English title (Sorrow of War) is less effective -- less ironic -- than the Italian one.

As you surmise, my father was deeply opposed to war and injustice. During the Vietnam War, at which time our family resided in Rome, he was active in the anti-war movement. For example, see this clipping from a 1967 Roman newspaper that depicts a rally at which he, Gore Vidal, and others spoke.

He did have the dream of Socialism in its ideal form, but agreed that no country had successfully made that a reality. Indeed, some used it as the basis for repressive and brutal regimes, as your own experience so painfully confirms.

Your political comments are astute. He did have some ugly encounters with McCarthyism in the 1950s. You mention Cornell University; he was graduated there in 1936.

Thanks again for writing and for your interest in my father's work. It is wonderful to see that he lives on through his work and in our hearts.

Charles Keller © 2013