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Second Nature

A show devoted to Charles Burchfield’s depictions of weather comes to Montclair.

Charles E. Burchfield, Sunburst

Charles E. Burchfield, Sunburst, 1929-31, oil on canvas, 35.5 x 47.5 in., framed: 40.74 x 64.75 in.

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The American artist Charles Burchfield had an incredible ability to capture the nuances of nature in paint. One of the most celebrated watercolorists of the 20th century, Burchfield rendered sublime scenes of forests, fields, and suburban and rural yards. He created an intricate language of forms to connote the pulsing sounds and graceful movements of nature, making his paintings uniquely experiential. He was also a master of conveying weather and its effects—wind bending the brush in the woodlands, rain beating on trees or houses, water pooling in puddles on the street, and hot rays of light streaking down from the sun as if radiating off the paper. In fact, Burchfield, who spent whole days observing and sketching natural landscapes, had an uncanny knack for depicting nature’s transformative moments—from storm to calm, day to evening, one season to the next. He himself said, “To me, the artist, interested chiefly in weather—all weather is beautiful, and full of powerful motion.”

The exhibition “Charles E. Burchfield: Weather Event,” which is currently on view at the Montclair Art Museum (through January 7), focuses on weather in Burchfield’s work and supplements over 40 examples of the artist’s landscape watercolors with drawings and archival material. It is organized by The Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State in Buffalo, N.Y. (where a version of it ran several years ago) with a collaborative view between art and science in mind—Tullis Johnson, curator and manager of archives at The Burchfield Penney Art Center, worked with Stephen Vermette, a climatologist and professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Buffalo State, to curate the exhibition.

Gail Stavitsky, the Montclair Art Museum’s chief curator, organized the museum’s version of “Weather Event.” “I loved the show and its intersection of art and science, so I asked if I could borrow it,” she says. Stavitsky then tailored the exhibition to the MAM. “We have a wonderful example of Burchfield’s work in our collection, so we added that to the show,” says the curator. “We also wanted to emphasize Burchfield’s importance as an artist and as a visionary artist of the 20th century.”

Burchfield’s importance runs deep. It’s possible that some might know him as a regionalist painter who showcased the American scene as his subject. This portion of his career, his “middle period,” as he called it, lasts roughly from the end of World War I (he was assigned to the camouflage unit in the Army) to the early 1940s. His early work, which begins in 1915, while he was at the Cleveland School of Art, took on nature and landscape with an almost Fauvist use of large, joyous fields of color. In the early ’40s, as he was approaching middle age, Burchfield shed the realism of his regionalist period and returned to these early depictions of nature. In some instances, he actually added on to early landscapes, pasting supplemental sheets of paper on earlier works (there are several examples of this in the show) and expanding the painting. In original works of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, he created visionary landscapes with exaggerated forms and colors that seem to exalt nature like altarpieces.

The show focuses on the early and late periods of Burchfield’s oeuvre. Stavitsky describes Sunburst (1929–31) as “the work in the show that comes closest to what Burchfield called his middle period.” It’s not only the largest piece in the show, it’s also the only oil on canvas. Certainly less ethereal than his later work, Sunburst has a sense of expansiveness and Americana, similar to Grant Wood’s work or the best examples of Western painting. The exhibition’s wall text for this painting—like those for many others in the show—acknowledges both the artistic and weather-related aspects in play. Describing the crepuscular rays—the beams of sunlight radiating from the sun—present in the painting, it read, “Interestingly, these rays of light owe their existence to the shadows cast by the clouds. The beam is the absence of a shadow, where sunlight is able to penetrate through holes in or between the clouds. The crepuscular rays shine both down to the Earth’s surface and up into the atmosphere.” Of the curious weather event occurring in the painting’s far right, the text notes, “On the right side of the painting, a rain shaft is shown. It is limited in its size and likely of short duration, as the clouds appear flattened and elongated (stratocumulus vesperalis) due to cooling temperatures and weakening updrafts.”

“Weather Event” features a section of Burchfield’s depictions of haloed moons. The circular halo around the moon—which Burchfield captured in paint several times—is actually an optical illusion that takes place when light is refracted through atmospheric ice crystals. These crystals are found in cirrostratus clouds, which get icy at heights of 20,000 to 30,000 feet, where the temperature can be less than negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The four depictions of this phenomenon in the show, all watercolor and graphite on paper, were completed in 1916 and 1917. Burchfield shows variations of colors emanating from the moon, which is in fact scientifically accurate, as a halo can be whitish, blue, or even red.

Day in Midwinter, a 1945 gouache on paper in the MAM’s collection, depicts a view across several backyards from his studio in Gardenville, N.Y. The scene is frosted with a blue-white layer of freshly fallen snow, pristine save for a trail of footprints. In his journal, Burchfield wrote, “I suddenly realized that today was a perfect ideal winter’s day. The bright golden sunshine reflected in the glare of the snow-covered fields, the calm cold air…and the silence of things—all these consummated a perfect harmony of nature.”

The presence of Burchfield’s journals—replete with quick drawings of the artist’s surroundings and all-day sketches of particular landscapes—and archival materials are a highlight of the show. “These additions really make the point that Burchfield had a true fascination with nature,” says Stavitsky. One piece of ephemera is a postcard depicting “The Great Eruption of Lassen Peak, May 22, 1915” that Burchfield saved; another is a clipping from a 1951 issue of Life magazine. The latter is a fold-out titled “24 Hours of Sun,” which features 24 images of the sun throughout the day, rising and setting above the Arctic Circle.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2017

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