Filled With Light
By Penelope Rowlands, Appellation – Wine Country Living
“Do you know this opera?” artist Ira Yeager asks, placing a recording of an obscure 1920s German opera on the CD player in his Napa County studio and listening as the high-ceilinged room floods with sound. He stands for a moment, transfixed by an aria from Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, before returning to the task of hauling out paintings for display. “A lot of these works are painted opera,” he tells me, bringing forth a colorful portrait of a man with a tricorn hat and a basketful of wine bottles – one of a series of Yeager paintings that he calls the “Peasant Wine Series,” celebrating the wine country of old.
That there’s something exuberant and operatic about this work, I have no doubt, but there seems to be a problem with the date: the year 1789 is painted in bold letters in one corner of the canvas. Yeager is quick to set me straight: Occasionally he dates his paintings with a random year from the period of 1780-1795 – a time he considers the golden age of art – and signs them Von Yeager, a nom d’emprunt he pronounces with a Scandinavian flourish. “I am an eighteenth-century Swedish court painter,” he explains, deadpan, then pulls out another portrait, this time of a woman in a billowing blue dress holding aloft a glass of red wine.
A sampling of paintings from Yeager’s studio.
In between paintings – one series depicts aristocrats at the time of the French Revolution, another portrays antique shoes – Yeager peppers me with questions, and they’re telling ones. “Are you a Francophile?” he asks. “Do you read Royalist magazine?” An opera fan, Francophile and royalist himself, he swears by the wisdom of the statesman Talleyrand, whom he quotes: “You’ll never know how sweet life could be unless you lived in the eighteenth century.”
It is this douceur that Yeager attempts to convey in his art. He describes his work as “the eighteenth century coming through the twentieth century,” and it really is a curious hybrid. With their simple backgrounds, their patches of abstraction and splashes of color, these paintings have a modern feel. But the peasant faces of Yeager’s subjects, and the warmth of feeling they convey, harken back to a simpler, agrarian time. “I like to paint simple people,” he says, without a trace of condescension. “You can never see such gracious people as farmers and simple people. You never see such elegance, you never see such dignity.” Such traits appeal, apparently.
Yeager’s art, which is sold through galleries across the country, has been collected by such well-known names as Robert Redford, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and an exhibit entitled, Landscapes: A New Vision of Abstraction, was shown last summer at the Academy of Art College Gallery in San Francisco.
This artist cuts his own path, and it detours widely around the art world. “I don’t read any art books,” he says. “I don’t go to galleries or anything.” With his long, gray hair and a silk foulard scarf at his neck, Yeager projects an endearingly eccentric elegance. His taste runs to top quality designer clothes, often found in thrift shops, and he makes a point of painting in the finest quality shoes, usually by Ferragamo or Bally (“If you’re doing what you love, why not wear the best?”). His studio is a study in color and order: paintings in a row, brushes arranged by size, paints by shade. His delight in the past is everywhere evident, from the music that is always playing – Chopin, Schubert, Brahms – to the furniture, which includes several antique chairs with “period” portraits Yeager has painted directly on the upholstery. The studio itself, which Yeager designed in collaboration with his friend, builder Richard Horwath, is a kind of latter-day dacha, a compact, clean-lined version of those fanciful wooden structures where, for centuries, high-ranking Russians have gone to commune with nature.
Late afternoon light illuminates one of the paintings from the Peasant Wine Series (Untitled, mixed media, 24″ x 24″), displayed in one of Ira Yeager’s many structures he calls “follies.” The answer to any child’s dream: an elaborate treehouse folly.
The son of a legendary outdoorsman from the Pacific Northwest, Yeager grew up in Washington state but came of age, in another way, in Europe. A talented young artist in a non appreciative milieu, he fled early to San Francisco, where he studied with such well-known artists as Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn at the San Francisco Art Institute. Later, he lived in an atlas of places – Italy, the South of France, Ibiza, Greece, and Morocco when “all the beatniks were there,” including his friends Allen Ginsberg and writers Paul and Jane Bowles. His painting evolved with his travels. An abstract expressionist in the 1950s, he showed his work with a group of painters known as Gruppo Numero. Decades later, in Greece, he began a kind of portraiture similar to that which fills his studio today, doing paintings of “village people,” some on donkeys, some in native costumes. He describes his art as “a kind of autobiographical everything. It’s all the places I’ve lived.”
Yeager moved to the Napa Valley in the mid 1970s, drawn to a landscape that reminded him of the Mediterranean. He tends to buy houses, things he calls “little shacky structures,” in quantity; he owns numerous homes on several pieces of Napa land and claims to live in them sequentially. He has an extraordinary eye for interiors. Even the modest house near his studio is a masterful combination of hand painted Swedish furniture, French prints, twig furniture and such unexpected touches as an eighteenth-century velvet cutaway coat casually draped over a coat hook.
“What I love is pastorale, when man touches nature in a beautiful way, like the English and their follies, the French and their follies,” Yeager says as we walk through his seventeen-acre property, a former apple orchard, which is dotted with a growing collection of follies that he designed with Horwath. Most of these echo the quirky charm of the studio building itself. There’s a rustic, one-room hermit’s cottage, which Yeager calls “my summer bedroom,” and an elaborate tree folly – every child’s dream – where the artist goes to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Each one seems to have a function: he calls one large, prefabricated folly his “summer studio” and drapes it with garlands for parties and birthday celebrations.
He invites me for an impromptu lunch, served in a Chinoiserie wood folly (also by Horwath). A gifted cook, Yeager is working on several books about food, including one on cabbage. Today’s menu is off-the-cuff – a Greek-influenced pasta dish, leftover fried chicken – and perfectly sublime. The talk, as it is so often with Yeager, is a pastiche, touching on chateau living and the best place in the Bay Area to buy secondhand designer clothes. “I can find something eighteenth century practically every time I go shopping,” he says.
Talking of future painting projects, he mentions “an end-of-the-century series”; by now I know better than to ask which century he means. His passion for the 1700s is nonexclusive: he’ll occasionally combine it with other themes, ones that might seem incompatible but somehow, in his hands, are not. The impulse behind all his work is similar – it’s that sweetness Talleyrand mentioned – and it unites each disparate strand. “I’m going into joy and blessings,” he says. “I’m finished with darkness. That’s why you see a lot of light in my pictures, a lot of joy. I’m tired of darkness. There’s enough darkness when you go out on the street; why do you want to put it on the wall?”