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Paintbrush Poetry 

Ohio artist Charles Burchfield found creative freedom through watercolors.

"New Moon in January," by Charles Burchfield, - watercolor and graphite on paper.
  • "New Moon in January," by Charles Burchfield, watercolor and graphite on paper.
Experts have tried to categorize Charles Burchfield's art without much luck. Some classified the brilliant watercolorist as a 20th-century American scene realist who was a sort of rural Edward Hopper. Others pegged him as a quaint visionary in the Grant Wood mold. Still others found a deeply mystical strain in his vividly colored flora and thus proclaimed him a throwback to 19th-century Romantic traditions. An insightful new exhibit organized by the Cleveland Artists Foundation, called The Poetics of Place: Charles Burchfield and the Cleveland Connection, now at the Beck Center, confirms Burchfield's multifaceted artistic personality. It also demonstrates how, even in the early phases of his career, he was able to put his own personal stamp on the images that were swirling around him.

Just as his art defied classification, so did his personal life. The Ohio native wasn't unconventional in the way many people expect artists to be. Born in Ashtabula Harbor and raised in Salem, he lived most of his life along the southern shore of Lake Erie. Once he relocated to Cleveland (and later to Buffalo), he worked as a wallpaper designer. Hardly the bohemian type, he was happily married with five children. He died in Buffalo in 1967 at the age of 74.

The 57 works in the exhibit at Beck Center focus primarily on Burchfield's early career. These vibrant renderings of nature's moods appear to have been conceived and executed in moments of white-hot inspiration. Some are melancholic. Others are celebratory. The common strand in all is Burchfield's unerring sense of atmosphere -- his feeling for how small details can enliven the texture of a work, giving it an emotional heft far exceeding the modest subject matter.

Christine Shearer, director of the Cleveland Artists Foundation, and Nancy Weekly of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo have loosely named the show after the title recently given to Burchfield's journals. These, which have been collectively titled The Poetry of Place by their editor, show Burchfield to have been an everyday American guy who also happened to spend his spare time making watercolors, listening to classical music, and thinking about religion. If his work is about a place, though, where or what is that place? Is it Salem? Cleveland? Middle America in general? The work here suggests that the "place" is a composite of all the actual places just mentioned. He knows all about Cleveland's harsh winters and the winds that can blow in from the lake, but when he renders these phenomena in his work, the result is not a meteorological report, but a glimpse into his own soul. That's the thing about Burchfield: There are images of Midwestern life everywhere in his watercolors, but even when he specifies a precise geographical location in his titles, the feeling of personal communication is unmistakable.

The work here roughly spans the period from Burchfield's early adulthood to his middle age. The earliest works date from 1916, when the artist was 23 (a few years after his graduation from the Cleveland Institute of Art); the exhibit concludes with a 1938 watercolor called "Retreat of Winter." Typical of the early work is "New Moon in January," a watercolor and graphite dating from 1918. In it, a pale yellow sky suggesting late afternoon is offset against a snowy house. The dull green color of the wood is combined dissonantly with the fleecy whiteness of the snow and the wan sky. A further unusual feature is the slight low-angle point of view, which causes the front of the house to loom large. Artists frequently use this perspective in order to magnify the stature of their subject, but here the subject is so unprepossessing that one suspects that the artist is engaging in a bit of irony. Burchfield gauges his subject and formal treatment to fine effect. It's a somber winter scene, and there are elements of parody, too. Burchfield had a love-hate relationship with Salem, if his renderings of it are to be trusted, and this is a fine capsule summary of the bitter aspect of his art.

There were other aspects to his artistic vision, though. Like his friend and mentor William Sommer (whose "Fertile Fields," a fine watercolor dating from the 1930s, is on display at the Beck Center show along with some other examples of Cleveland artists in Burchfield's circle), Burchfield often found a spiritually charged sense of abundance in his rural scenes. These works explode with saturated color and quick slashing strokes. One sees this aspect of Burchfield's art throughout his career, and here one can savor it in works like the 1916 watercolor and graphite called "Afternoon in the Grove." It's also evident in "Clearing Sky," a watercolor from a year later.

The latter is a skillful appropriation of effects that Van Gogh used in his late 19th-century evocations of meadows suffused with a kind of intense energy from within. Burchfield's trees are rendered in quick calligraphic strokes, and the storm clouds at far left are also rendered with impulsive brushwork. The turbulence in a work like this is not meant to suggest that nature is unpredictable (the sky, after all, is clearing). Rather, the artist is implying that at certain moments, there is an almost demonic intensity in nature's beauty. There is something both alluring and threatening about it.

A word is in order about Burchfield's medium of choice -- watercolors. He put it this way: "My preference for watercolor is a natural one . . . Whereas I always feel self-conscious when I use oil. I have to stop and think how I am going to apply the paint to canvas, which is a detriment to complete freedom of expression . . . To me watercolor is so much more pliable and quick."

The key words here are "pliable" and "quick." Since Burchfield so frequently found inspiration in the music he loved best, it might be revealing to recall a distinction that the mid-century American composer Aaron Copland drew in his book What to Listen for in Music. Copland distinguishes between three creative types -- the spontaneously inspired artist, the constructive artist, and the traditionalist. His description of the spontaneously inspired artist fits Burchfield uncannily well: "[Artists] of his kind begin not so much with a musical theme as with a completed composition. They invariably work best in the shorter forms. It is much easier to improvise a song than it is to improvise a symphony. It isn't easy to be inspired in that spontaneous way for long periods at a stretch." Substitute the word "watercolor" for the word "song" and "oil painting" for "symphony," and the parallel to Burchfield is both clear and suggestive.

This is an insightful exhibit and proves that, among Ohio artists -- indeed among all mid-century American artists -- Burchfield's voice was one of the most distinctive. In his emotional range and the seemingly effortless command he had of the watercolor medium, he is one of the standouts during a period of American art that has been receiving increased scrutiny lately. This exhibit provides Clevelanders with a rare opportunity to savor some of his earliest works.

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