Saturday, March 23, 2013

Charles Burchfield's Visions in Nature

Charles Burchfield, Crows in March, 1953. Lithograph,
13.25 x 9.75." Courtesy of the Keny Galleries.
The robins in my back yard this month have looked as big as rabbits, so puffed up are their feathers against the entrenched cold. I'm wearing hats in the house like a faint-hearted Cossack. I am writing on the first day of spring, but the drabness of the landscape and depressed temperatures make it hard to feel any warm, seasonal flush of hope.

It's likely that the Keny Galleries in Columbus didn't plan Charles Burchfield: An American Visionary (1893-1967) to assuage the gloom of we, the seasonally saddened, but I find the show an effective antidote to what appears out my window. Burchfield was an observer and recorder of nature extraordinaire. Throughout a long career he not only painted and drew what he saw in the meadows, yards, and woodlots of Ohio and upstate New York, but he recorded his visions of nature at the same time. The trees he paints are the trees you and I see, but with their secret spirits released. In his work, trees and flowers are no longer shy about exposing the thoughts, attitudes, and voices that most of us couldn't know until his patient insight captured them accurately.

The lithograph of Crows in March so captures what Robert Frost called the "inner and outer weather" of this disconcerting, late-blooming season. One identifiable crow flies across the center of the picture, signaling to us that the undulating shapes in the sky above it are crows also. The latter birds are so abstract in shape though, that they seem to give down-facing wings—of birds or bats?—to the dead tree trunks in the swamp, and upward rising ones to the high branches of the living pines. The clouds themselves, and the light that falls between them onto the earth share the wave motion and the undulating pattern of light and dark. Which way is the season going? Will the light ever supplant the dark in this evenly balanced pattern? Will up prevail against down?
Summer Benediction, detail.

In Summer Benediction from the same year, Burchfield's "crow shapes" appear again as part of his visual vocabulary of lull. All the waves end with downward turns, as if they hang peacefully, their motion suspended. Combined with the tiny dots at the horizon line, the weight of the oak leaves and the clouds make one almost hear the drone of insects in a medium of steady heat. 

Charles Burchfield, Summer Benediction, 1953. 12 x 9."
Lithograph. Courtesy of the Keny Gallery.
The flowers in the foreground and mid-ground, however, virtually twinkle, as if their centers were eyes. Though some tall leaves turn down, its from the height of erect, strong stems. The center of the space is framed then but by elements that lead the eye down from the top and up from beneath, to a lovely, open and dreamy space; to a distant hill of possibilities. Compare this to March in the swamp, where the middle is filled with trunks fallen at angles, blocking the way to the tiny spot of light far distant. March seems inescapable; summer is dreams of infinity, with flowers strewn in the path taking you there.

Burchfield's drawings and prints are fewer and less well-known than his watercolors, many painted on a scale allowing for great detail and complex composition. His 1948 Early Spring is such a work, apparently one of many scenes that the artist painted on his own property; he was a connoisseur and expert of the familiar; an intimate of everyday landscape. 

Here the artist is working in a different mode, primarily observational. The sense of a raw, rainy early spring day—is it raining or snowing or both?—makes me shiver. Will the daffodils stand up again tomorrow, or lie in puddles in the mud? The many values of grey in the sky and in the landscape are so well presented: He reminds us that the transitional spring world really is grey. What color there is comes as relief to the reality of winter's habitual, steely neutrality, as if color were indeed merely painted on.

Charles Burchfield, Early Spring—May, 1948. 29 x 40." Watercolor with gouache and charcoal on paper.
Courtesy of the Keny Gallery.
Still, even though this scene is less overtly abstract and formal than the lithographs above, Burchfield still organizes the view with a rhythm and energy native to his eye. The scalloping rows of dark and light clouds is emphasized by the charcoal line drawn over it. These shapes are echoed by the arches of the fence, repeated on a larger scale by the trellised forsythias, the graceful branches of the blossoming trees, and the wind-swept twigs of green leaves. The black fence posts, the tree trunks, the four-square tower of the church all anchor both the world against the blustery weather. We are protected on the other side of a window that affords us this view made a little indistinct, perhaps by the moisture.

Charles Burchfield, Evening Sunlight, Winter, 1917.
Watercolor on paper. 19.5 c 13.5."
Courtesy of the Keny Galleries.
Another watercolor in which Burchfield provides this pleasure of something carefully observed yet aesthetically well-managed is Evening Sunlight, Winter from the days of his early successes in the  'teens. The composition is unusual for him—the single major event, the tree, standing squarely in the middle of the frame—but what surrounds it seems more familiar. The branches in the picture's upper half form their own abstract composition of curved lines and the spaces, cutting across the neutral background colors. The branches trace courses we've seen in the later works, above—the crow wings/bat wings, scallops that can face up or down. The tree and its neighbors shoot expressive lines across each other in a complex network in which the red chimneys hand like exotic fruit. The small town neighborhood as swamp or jungle.
Evening Sunlight, Winter. Detail.

Evening Sunlight, Winter. Detail 2.
The lower part of Evening Sunlight too, while representing shadows in snow, is nevertheless painted in a manner that reminds me of the way he handles distance in the two lithographs above. The washy blue and brown here do the job of grey and white there, and are deployed in the same way as lines of gently sloping, receding  distance. The bands are straighter here, but there are still up-sweeps, the line of waves, and the eventual breakthrough to white, here complicated with with pale sepia dots. The snow doesn't just lie there: For all the stillness of the overall scene, every element within is charged with potential drama and motion.

What Nature is; how and why humans interpret Nature are questions every landscape or plein air artist has to contend with. Each inevitably will put his or her own stamp on Nature in recording it. 

Artists can't represent nature as, "Just the facts, m'am," because it cannot be represented in its plenitude without editing. Nature has no focal point. Art does. It's all about edited compositions made and manipulated around focal points. When nature frightens us, it's because we can't focus or arrange it; our instinct is to manipulate it whenever we can; to find or impose pattern and design from the outset. 

Charles Burchfield, September Afterglow, 1949. Watercolor. 37.25 x 11.125."
The Canton Museum of Art, Gift of Ralph L. Wilson. Courtesy of the Keny Galleries.
Every individual is instinctively aware that humans are tiny compared to nature. We create ways to feel less vulnerable to the mighty accidents of geology, weather, or any of the other great non-rational forces by treating nature with romantic awe, by tackling it to show our notional strength, our by declaring ourselves Nature's friend.

So nature or landscape artists have to bring a taming point of view to their work. Frequently this was a romantic one in American art of the 19th and early twentieth centuries.  Nature is good; it reflects simplicity, innocence, morality—fair weather. Storms suggest judgments.

Burchfield, however, likes the grey areas. He is as interested in the transitional seasons as he is in seasonal peaks. He likes to study light dispersed across landscape in different tempers of weather more than he wants to give us an a straight-up view of a sunny or snowy day. Most important of all, I think, is that he doesn't really project a generalized vision of Nature at all. He represents his own, uniquely personal relationship to it. His pictures show how nature affects him, rather than offering an appeasing point of view.

In September Afterglow, for instance, the sunflower drops its petals. From the limpness of the flower's leaves, we guess that the first frost may have already visited. Is the meadow already frosted over, silver-grey? Or is the color what comes with descending light? Like Early Spring—May, above, the painting is essentially cool blue-grey, with highlights of yellow, green, and coral. Still, there's enough information to make us believe in the details: It's the end of a season, what has bloomed is dying back; both time of day and of year are bleeding the color away; forms dangle and droop.

The limp black forms contrast, though, with the high arch of the flower's stem and the glow over the dwellings. There's a spiritual feeling that makes the yellow petals feel like the sprinkling of holy water. It even makes me feel that the scene could be used as a Christmas card, with that single star twinkling in the sky.

Charles Burchfield, Sultry Moon, weed detail. 1959. 
My sense in this, as in much of Burchfield's work, is not that he has imbued Nature with a romantic vision or any attitude at all, but rather that Burchfield has recorded the effect that Nature has had on him and his vision. What he has put on the paper is indeed reality as he perceives and knows it, not simply as he wishes to conceive of it. This is close to ecstatic vision—witness its luminosity, the softness of the lines, the slight blurring, the repetition of shape, the combination of menace (the forms in the upper right, the strength of black forms) and magic (the unspecified lightness in the field; the sunset color). It is a picture of a scene known not merely to the eyes, but throughout the sensorium.

In Burchfield's 1959 watercolor, Sultry Moon, foreground weeds and a middle-ground tree shimmer under an orange moon in a grey-blue sky. I have only two details here, but each reflects further developments in the artist's way of recording nature's effect on him rather than presenting the outer world through a taming point of view. 

The close up of a weed in full-bloom is virtually figurative, and being such, would seem to wear sacred or regal head gear and drapery. It is very fancy, and its leaves lift from its sides gesturally. Burchfield has repeated most of his black lines with grey ones, giving the effect not so much of shadows but that the figure is trembling. Between the costuming and the implied motion, this denizen of the weed-lot has become something significant, alive, and magically communicating with us.

Charles Burchfield, Sultry Moon, tree detail, 1959.
Series of window reflections across center.
The tree that catches the moon glow is similarly both radiant and quivering, as if the physical energy of light were transferred to kinetic form once the branches received it. Broken and stuttering lines create the branches and foliage that shudder, as it seems, in response to the moon's quiet energy. 

Once more, the painting's palette is basically neutral—grey and brown—with the heat of the orange sun making itself felt by simple contrast. The orange along the top of the tree reads as flame, especially with the kind of mark Burchfield has chosen. As with the weed, the shadowy reduplication of mark, and the disconnected leaves/bark falling away at the bottom lend the sense of subtle but powerful movement, reinforced by the fact that the moon is not emanating rays aimed at the Earth. It's power slides off obliquely, in concentric arcs that are mirrored by the staccato thread of orange and green along the horizon line. 

In the sultry night there is inner tension, vibration, passion. The artist did not put it there. Nature it to him. The painting shows what Burchfield saw and what he wants to reveal. He sees nature and he speaks in voices, responding beyond the usual capacity of paint. Nature isn't something to see, but to experience to the very depths of mind and body, and to record in as many dimensions as possible.

Were I to have Burchfield's painting of the scene out my window—the back yard with its straw-blonde grass and shivering robins—I would see those patches of green I overlook everyday, and and the maroon among the leaves of the vine that struggles to regenerate. I would understand that the position of the grass's translucent blades has meaning; that they bend not because they are frozen, but in their will to move. Burchfield's painting would be instantly recognizable as my yard. Yet I'd know him as the medium by which my plot's  nature can be known, and as the sage who can teach me how to listen to the tree's bark as well as the dog's; to feel not only the heat of the flame, but creeping spring's as well.

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