Burchfield’s transcendent vision
Discover a great, yet too often overlooked, 20th-century painter
Does the child know best how to read a landscape for its moods? Empty of factual information, the curves and hollows, brightness and shadows, clouds and illuminations of the land strike deep chords in the soul of a person newly-arrived to this earth. This ability to feel into the emotions of a place, as we do the fleeting expressions on the faces of our early caregivers, is what sensitizes us to that place, and binds us to it at our very core. Here are the seeds of a relationship so inherent to our coming-into-being, and so powerful, that if we leave the place where we grew up, are we destined to carry its absence as an impression of longing for the rest of our lives, whether we know it or not?
American painter Charles Burchfield thought so. He was never far from the land that raised him. One of six children of a school teacher and a tailor, he fell deeply in love with the woods and fields around his rural hometown, Salem, Ohio. At age 14, he suffered from exhaustion after a manic episode during which he attempted to draw all the flowering plants and fruit trees he could find close to home. By age 25, his love affair with the land was full-blown. After a brief two-month stint at in New York City, he took to the fields day after day impassioned by streams and hillocks, creating what he called “all-day sketches” that chronicled the variances of weather and light. That year, 1917, became what he would later refer to as his “Golden Year,” a period of extreme artistic proliferation when he painted more than 200 works in a bold style merging a nexus of influences including Fauvism and Chinese landscapes. These watercolours would be discovered by a New York art dealer 13 years later and passed onto the curator of the then new Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) who featured them in its first-ever solo show: Charles Burchfield: Early Watercolours 1916-1918.
The paintings in the MOMA show presented moments pregnant with atmosphere and have titles like Yellow Afterglow, Autumnal Wind and Rain, Moon Through Young Sunflowers, Noontide in Late May and The Insect Chorus. Writing of the latter, Burchfield explains: “It is late Sunday afternoon in August. A child stands alone in the garden, listening to the metallic sounds of insects. They are all his world, so, to his mind, things become saturated with his presence — crickets lurk in the depths of the grass, the shadows of the trees conceal fantastic creatures, and the boy looks with fear at the black interior of the arbor, not knowing what terrible thing might be there.”
Believing that memory was the vehicle through which the impressions of a place became coherent, he sought to recreate his boyhood memories in these paintings.
Burchfield knew, even as a student attending the Cleveland School of Art between 1912 and 1916, that his urgency to capture and communicate the deep bond he felt with nature was at the centre of his creative impulse — instead of, say, a passion for art in and of itself. In fact, writing felt as near vital a craft to him as painting, and he agonized over which he should pursue, feeling that each captures elements of the landscape that the other cannot. After a winter of painting indoors, he heard the first call of a red-bird and was cast into doubt: how to capture sound in painting? Which do I love more, he wrote in his journal, painting or writing?
He ended up seeking a hybrid of the two, a place where the seen and the unseen intersect, where sound and movement are conveyed through a vocabulary of radiating wavy lines that would be familiar to cartoonists as well as to admirers of painter Vincent van Gogh’s pen and ink sketches. Burchfield’s images from this time are radiant with blurgits and agitrons, the tongue-in-cheek terms that comic artists use to refer to lines indicating movement. Though there is no evidence of the influence of comics on the artist, he probably read the Sunday funnies like everyone else. He took the impulse for visual shorthand a step further, recording a vocabulary of shapes that, when incorporated into a picture, would indicate moods, such as brooding, fear of loneliness and morbidity. He built these shapes into cloud forms and doorways, tree branches and mine shafts.
A change in direction
In 1918, his pastoral rompings came to an end when he was inducted into the U.S. Army. His skills as an artist were put to use designing camouflage for artillery. To his great relief, he was honourably discharged the following January, and threw himself back into painting. This time, though, his subject matter changed. After being moved by descriptions of the quiet and often desperate lives of country folk described in Winesburg, Ohio — a short-story collection by Sherwood Anderson — he turned to what he called “the hardness of human lives,” choosing to paint dilapidated row houses and brooding industrial scenes.
In 1921, Burchfield married Bertha Kenreich, the daughter of a farming family, and realized he would need to make a reliable living if they hoped to raise a family. They moved to Buffalo and “Chaz,” as Bertha called him, got a job designing wallpaper at M.H. Birge & Sons. His production of paintings slowed to one or two a month if he was lucky. Over the following two decades, he slowly honed his skills as a painter, moving away from his symbolic, gestural style to a realist depiction of architecture and light, empty winter streets and luminous oil slicks. Though he continued to paint scenes of weather and nature, he gained recognition as a painter for his somber industrial images. The stark images, executed in watercolor, as the world careened towards the Great Depression, became a source of income for the family when magazines like Fortune commissioned a series of the dreary depictions. He earned a reputation as a Regionalist, which for an artist who was essentially his own movement, was somewhat of a dowdy category.
An epiphany came in 1943, when Burchfield realized he had gained enough stature as an artist that he could abandon industrial subject matter and return to the ecstatic fodder of his Golden Year. For Burchfield, the change was not as dramatic as it was for the general public, who had just gotten used to the idea of Burchfield as a competent though perhaps somewhat dull painter of train tracks and mine shafts. Burchfield had nourished his relationship with the land consistently, especially since 1925 when he and his family of five moved from Buffalo to the adjacent suburb of West Seneca spending the rest of his life in the rural neighborhood of Gardenville.
He returned to some of the 1917 pieces, enlarging them by meticulously gluing strips of watercolor paper around the edges and elaborating on the images. These are considered by many to be among his best works, the gift of a rare occurrence: experimentation and dramatic artistic development later in life. The merging of his symbolic vocabulary from youth with all the subtleties of painterly form and technique that he refined throughout his lifetime resulted in images that are paradoxically seen as both realistic and fantastical. Heavy summer light cascades from the crowns of trees, an insect, leaf, flower and wind all seem to echo each other, as though they share an intrinsic mathematic that is felt rather than seen in the repeating structures that underlie individual difference.
Burchfield’s later work is often called “visionary” — a reference to a transcendence of the physical world and a portrayal of spiritual or mystical themes. Still what Burchfield aches to convey is not a transcendence of the physical, but rather a total immersion in every sense: a divinity experienced through the senses. His amalgamation of sensory impressions through shape and line is a lush cornucopia that he invites his viewers to occupy. At age 21, had already elucidated this desire in his journal:
“I hereby dedicate my life and soul to the study and love of nature, with the purpose to bring it before the mass of uninterested public, that they may see and become familiar with the endless number of nature’s beauties, wherein lies my greatest happiness. If I can bring only a few serious-minded people to see how vital nature is, besides being beautiful, I shall be content.”
Early Spring, the painting on Burchfield’s easel when he died of a heart attack in 1967 at age 73, depicts a scene that glows with the lucent light of the season. Dandelions push up through snow and small high clouds are lit up by the reflected colour of the earth’s new leafing: the world described at its highest state of joy. In an inversion of the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel trope, a tunnel of darkness under a grove of trees at the center of the panel describes the unknown, a hereafter which cannot possibly measure up to the majesty of the Now. Burchfield hoped to give us a portal to that joy, a reality more rich and fantastic than anything we could devise with our imaginations.
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