Bo Bartlett brings the narrative painting tradition up to date, merging the historical with the personal.
Bo Bartlett is an American realist painter, rooted in figurative traditions from his own country—Wyeth, Rockwell, Eakins, Homer—and from Europe, going back to the Renaissance. Unlike many contemporary artists who work in a realist mode, he doesn’t trade in postmodern irony, and his is not an appropriation art. Bartlett uses classical visual language to tell stories. Some are personal and some are public, or at least have a public aspect. In fact, Bartlett is one of the few contemporary painters to work in what used to be called the Grand Manner, large-scale, epic depictions of dramatic events that deploy the entire arsenal of academic art—elements of figure painting, portraiture, landscape, and still life all combined in one stage-managed scene. However, unlike the Grand Manner canvases of the 18th and 19th centuries, Bartlett’s “history paintings” don’t tell one official story. Rather, they are open-ended, and the artist has said that he wants viewers to engage with them imaginatively and not hold back from reading their own meanings and stories into them.
Take, for example, Homeland, a massive work from 1994 that measures 17 feet in diameter. A group of people depicted life-size, presumably refugees of war, are riding in the back of an open military truck across a wide-open, typically American landscape. The way the truck is rendered, most of it lies below the bottom edge of the canvas, so that at first glance it might almost seem to be a boat lying low in the water. That is, of course, intentional, because the figures are packed tightly together in a manner reminiscent of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, one of the most iconic American history paintings. A girl standing in the front, supported by a cloaked man, takes the place of George Washington, and the pieces of white cloth streaming from the hands of some of the figures suggest the flags and oars in Leutze’s composition.
Bartlett acknowledges the similarities, but adds that it has other art-historical sources, including Eugénè Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. “I threw it all in there, but it’s not an intentionally postmodern game. It’s not meant to be an homage or a pastiche. Dreams and real life were sources, too. I put all my best friends in the back of the truck—my therapist, my minister, musicians I knew, everybody in my life.” The inscription on the side of the truck, “IGN 5594,” encodes Bartlett’s birthday, and the “IGN” is an enigmatic “personal insignia” that occurs in many of the artist’s paintings and that he declines to explain.
Some of the figures in Homeland are wearing a timeless sort of garb that could be anything from Biblical to early American, while others are wearing the clothing of today. The overall effect is to make the narrative transcend time, so that it could represent any journey—heroic, beleaguered, hopeful—that any viewer could imagine himself or herself being a part of, along with his or her community. This timeless, archetypal quality pervades Bartlett’s oeuvre; his single-figure paintings are usually portraits of his family and friends, and yet the figures, who are not named in the titles, perform symbolic, ambiguous roles. Often, they turn their faces away from the viewer, which accentuates the impersonal nature of the image. Sometimes one element in a painting suffices to lift it out of the realm of the everyday. In Homecoming (1995), the bonfire behind the high-school football players and their girlfriends is just a little too big, on the verge of going out of control, suggesting the invasion of this primal American scene by uncanny, overwhelming forces.
In Hiroshima (1994), another of Bartlett’s large-scale history paintings, the destructive force of fire is present in its absence; what we are seeing is the moment before the atomic bomb struck. The three figures, two adults and a child, stand in a peaceful farm’s field; one looks up, as if seeing something up above. The sky glows a smoky pink, which is a real sunset but also, because of what we know, an anticipation of the deadly illumination that is about to occur. The figures are Japanese, but this could easily be an American farm, a farm anywhere in the world.
Growing up in Columbus, Ga., the son of a furniture-maker, Bartlett was exposed to art only through mass media. “If it wasn’t on the cover of Time or Life, I didn’t know about it,” he recalls. That meant Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, Picasso, and occasionally Dalí or Magritte. Traces of all these artists’ influences can be found in Bartlett’s work, but especially the first two. As a child, Bartlett was slow to speak but quick to draw; he was constantly sketching what he saw around him, using line to communicate his perceptions. His mother, who worked for a medical journal, used to show him anatomical illustrations in the hope that he would take up that line of work. After high school graduation, though, he was down to three choices—a circus clown, a preacher, or an artist. He chose art, and immediately set out on his own for Florence.
Part of the reason he chose Florence was that during high school he had read Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. In the novel, Asher, a young Hasidic boy growing up in Brooklyn, is powerfully drawn to art, but it is forbidden to him because of his religion’s aversion to image-making. In the end, he breaks away and goes to Florence to pursue a career as a modernist painter. Bartlett, who grew up in a devout Protestant community (which didn’t ban art but regarded it with some suspicion), deeply identified with Asher, whose imaginary portrait he painted decades later. In Florence, Bartlett ended up studying with a fellow American, Ben F. Long IV, who took him on as an apprentice in fresco painting. Long was part of the circle of Pietro Annigoni, a contemporary Italian artist who aligned himself with the Renaissance tradition. Bartlett says it was in Florence that he “really learned to draw, pretty much alone but under great tutelage.”
Back in the States, he went to Philadelphia, where he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the standard-bearer of a great American figurative tradition dating back to Benjamin West and continuing through Thomas Eakins. Bartlett also spent time at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he got to do some dissection work. “I actually cut up bodies,” he recalls. “Not only do you learn where all the insertions go, you really discover what life is by spending enough time with what the opposite of it is.” In this respect he emulated Eakins, whose famous painting The Gross Clinic is a paean to anatomical science.
For a long time, Bartlett was a peripatetic student, picking up influences everywhere he went. A traveling scholarship to Copenhagen acquainted him with the work of Vilhelm Hammershoi, and the lone female figures, sparse rooms, and open windows of Bartlett’s contemplative interiors, such as Dreamcatcher (2006), clearly show a debt to the late 19th-century Danish painter. The Wyeth influence is visible throughout Bartlett’s career, in the rural landscapes and farmhouses and in the ambiguous implied narratives.
Bartlett became close friends with Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, but by a circuitous route. In 1976, when he moved to Pennsylvania after returning from Europe, Bartlett, with the courage of his 19 years, opened up the phone book and cold-called his idol, arranging a visit to Chadds Ford. When he got there, Andrew was out (“probably off painting Helga,” Bartlett quips) but Betsy was in; confronted by the shaggy-looking young man, she was uncertain who he was and sent him away. “I scared her; I looked a bit like Rasputin,” says Bartlett. “I felt sort of jilted. I was young, I went back to Philadelphia and studied with Nelson Shanks instead. Many years later, the Wyeths called me, and we hit it off and were best friends.” In fact, Betsy eventually asked Bartlett, who studied filmmaking as well as painting, to make a documentary about her husband. “From studying film I learned so much about lighting,” says Bartlett. “Mise-en-scène is the starting point for me and has always been a big part of the way I organize my painting. So many things I learned in film school I’ve been able to translate into painting.”
Like Wyeth, Bartlett found inspiration in the Maine landscape and spent many years traveling back and forth between Maine and Philadelphia. Recently, he has reconnected to his hometown of Columbus, setting up the Bo Bartlett Center on the campus of Columbus State University. The Center is partly a museum for Bartlett’s own work, including rarely-seen mural-sized paintings, as well as other artists’ work, and partly an educational and outreach organization that will be working with local schools and mental health facilities to give support and guidance to students who are interested in painting and drawing. Among the works by Bartlett that will be accessible to the public are sketchbooks and archival materials that shed light on the artist’s growth and work process.
Based on a multidisciplinary approach, the Center will also feature music, film, and lectures by visiting artists. It is housed a former cotton warehouse on the Chattahoochee River that has been redesigned by architect Tom Kundig of the Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig, with 23-foot ceilings and clerestory windows that allow daylight to illuminate the artworks. Its director is David Houston, formerly Chief Curator of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Director of Curatorial at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Master classes at the Center will be taught by Bartlett himself, as well as by visiting artists.
Bartlett likes to start his lectures with a quotation from a novel by one of his favorite writers, Robertson Davies: “Let your root feed your crown.” He says, “It means to paint your life. Let it run up through you like a tree that’s flowering and blossoming. It all comes from being true to your temperament and existence and where you’re from. If you do that, your work will be true to all your DNA and your experiences, it will be real and true and original. That’s what I charge my students with.”
By John Dorfman