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Exalted Nature in Artvoice by Jack Foran

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The current art of Charles Burchfield display at the Burchfield Penney gets to the originality of this great watercolorist, the special visual language he invented to represent things invisible. Sounds and even smells most notably, material invisibles. But extending also to spiritual content, immaterial invisibles.

When still in his early twenties, he wrote in his journal, “It seems at times I should be a composer of sounds, not only of rhythms and colors. Walking under the trees I felt as if the color made sound.” Wall copy around this quote raises the question whether Burchfield was synesthetic, wherein one type of stimulation, that is, through one of the five senses, evokes sensation in another of the senses. The wall copy points out that “the influence of synesthesia...had a profound effect on modernist art movements in Europe and the United States.” Modernist art movements being basically abstractionist. Burchfield never became an abstract artist, but in parallel with the mainstream abstractionists—but on his own—he was devising a language of marks and signs by which perceived but unseen realities could be communicated on canvas or paper. Sounds and smells, but also premonitions, intuitions, insights.

Sounds are the most obvious example, and the invisible reality most easily depicted. Sound waves are invisible, but not waves in general. Such as ripples on water. Burchfield modified the visual phenomenon waves to represent the invisible phenomenon. It’s pretty much a convention now, but he invented—or contributed to the invention of—this isn’t a doctoral thesis—the convention. He invented it for his art.

Pulsations of darting crescent shapes to indicate the sounds of birds and insects. More jagged wave forms to indicate more raucous, strident noises. Zig-zags of thick black to indicate thunder.

But then similar little crescent emanations from even inanimate objects indicate a general vitalism, not just of natural things but all things. So trees and bushes have eyes, and houses have faces, and forests are cathedrals.

As for sense of smell, see the painting The Fragrance of Spring, with its profusion of yellow flowers. Burchfield knew his woods and fields flora so well, probably he could smell them in the painting. Possibly expected us to be able to also.

We get to see in the works on show Burchfield’s art grow, develop, expand, literally and figuratively. Wall copy tells how early on in his career—around World War I years—he painted mostly nature scenes, smallish landscapes, in a tempered modernist style. Then for the next twenty years or so, mostly city and town views, in basically realistic style. Always mainly watercolors on paper. But then in the ‘40s and into the ‘50s and ‘60s, went back to nature as his subject, and even to some of his old paintings from previous times, enlarging them—by pasting on paper strips along edges—and adding in new elements and his new signature spirit of vitalism. Look closely and at an angle and you can see the join lines where he has added on paper. The magnificent now-large-format Nighthawks at Twilight is a good example. The original central portion was painted in 1917, the expanded painting is from 1949. Depicting a dozen or so swooping and diving hawks against a half-lit evening sky, wave patterns of thin clouds amid sunset light effects echoing and contrasting with wave patterns below, in the trees and fields, and fenceline of what seem to be eyes of mystery creatures peering out of the foliage at the viewer peering at them.

The exhibit is called Exalted Nature and was co-organized by the Burchfield Penney and Brandywine River Museum, Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. It includes a number of spectacular Burchfield works from the Brandywine and other museums and private collections. Such as Summer Afternoon, another original early work later enlarged and embellished, depicting dense reeds and rushes greenery around marsh waters, and a central figure shimmering dragonfly. And Midsummer Caprice, presenting a huge cicada form, it looks like, in the overlap of branches and leaves of two adjacent trees.

Two notebook sketches from early on seem germane to Burchfield’s ultimate project: a little cricket sketch wherein the cricket form evokes wave forms; and Insect Fantasy, wherein an insect is transformed into sound waves on the one hand, a Persian or India Indian decorative design on the other.

Exalted Nature continues until February 22.