We are grateful to Susan Weininger for preparing the following essay:
This painting depicts a large hand emerging from the ground, holding what appears to be a very elegant, slim wand which conjures a pink crescent moon; the disembodied hand faces a flagged tent with the image of a dark hand complete with the palmistry lines clearly indicated; a blue ball sits on the ground below the tent. Abercrombie is often referred to as a Surrealist—she once said “Surrealism is for me because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see. So I dream that it is changed. Then I change it to the way I want it. It is almost always pretty real. Only mystery and fantasy have been added. All foolishness has been taken out. It becomes my own dream.” More often, her work is characterized as magic realism, a style in which objects and people are represented in a realistic manner with some fantastical overtones (for example, Abercrombie’s images of figures trapped by dresses pinned to the wall or imprisoned in buildings with only three walls, figures that cast shadows of other objects onto walls, and levitating women, as well as numerous other mysterious images). This painting, in which the elements have a “super real” quality represented in a believable manner comes as close to surrealism as Abercrombie ventures. It depicts a dreamlike landscape that begs deciphering, a landscape in which, indeed, all foolishness has been eliminated but is rife with mystery.
Nineteen forty eight was momentous for the artist who divorced her first husband and quickly married her second on New Year’s Eve of that year. Some of her work during this time had thinly veiled references to what she was going through. Between Two Camps (1948, Illinois State Museum, Springfield IL), an image of Abercrombie at the top of a tall freestanding staircase waving a red flag juxtaposed to a small reddish tent (very similar to the one in Hand and Tent) topped with a drooping white one, is a visual metaphor for her marriages. The same reddish tent appears in a number of paintings from this period (for example, Encampment [White Mountains], 1948, Private Collection; The Pink Tent, 1954, Private Collection), but is not one of the objects that reappear with great regularity in her work before or after this time.
Abercrombie was fascinated with magic, with transforming visions and dreams into painted work (or sometimes vice versa—a painting would find a real life equivalent) and this painting falls into that category. The disembodied hand is reflected in the image on the tent, but it is not a mirror image. Rather, the thumbs are on opposite sides. The image on the tent with its references to palmistry invokes the idea of seeing into the future, which the artist might have been hopeful about at the moment of her new marriage. The wand in the hand seems to magically call up the crescent moon, a potent symbol for Abercrombie, who said repeatedly that the moon was hers. The beautiful composition is held together with the ball in the foreground, giving a balance to the two major elements. The tent is also an enclosure like the rooms she painted throughout her life, often stifling and confining, a metaphor for her own feelings of emptiness and captivity. In Between Two Camps, the tent, a symbol of her first marriage, has no openings and seems to connote a space that imprisons. This tent offers the possibility of a future to be deciphered by the expert reader, which may anticipate the promise of freedom under the watchful eye of Gertrude’s moon.
The painting has a precision that Abercrombie was working to achieve particularly in the late 40s, and is characterized by her careful rendering of inanimate objects. The tent, flag and the ball have a fully realized three-dimensional quality that is characteristic of her skill, developed as a student (see her student exercises, Illinois State Museum, Springfield) in contrast to the slightly more awkward treatment of the hand, characteristic of her difficulty with animate objects.