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An arch formed by trees that becomes more like a gothic stained glass window than a scene from nature. Bird escaping an ominous forest overlaid with ... is that sound? Hidden images meant to signal “dangerous brooding,” “the fear of loneliness” or “imbecility.”
That’s just a few things visitors will discover in the Brandywine River Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, “Exalted Nature: The Real and Fantastic World of Charles E. Burchfield,” on view through Nov. 16. It looks specifically at Burchfield’s landscapes.
The works are nearly hallucinogenic: The more you look, the more that blade of grass or that stand of trees or that fallen leaf morphs something else. And while Burchfield meant to depict how this one scene looked, smelled and sounded at this one moment, viewing the show becomes a much more internal exercise than a communal one.
The exhibit marks a broadening of sorts for the Brandywine museum as it steps up its mission to more tightly bind its activities with those of its parent, the Brandywine Conservancy, which focuses on protecting and conserving the landscape.
The Burchfield show helps the museum look at its collection within a larger context of American art, partly by looking at an artist whose work has an affinity with artists in Brandywine Museum collection who also were absorbed by nature and the landscape.
“Andrew Wyeth was one of the artists we thought about in relation with Burchfield, not because of the similarity of their styles, but because of the way they work in and they look at their surroundings and nature,” says Audrey Lewis, the Brandywine museum curator who helped create the show.
She worked with Nancy Weekly at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Many of the paintings in the show are owned by that center, and the rest borrowed from museums or collectors. The Brandywine museum didn’t own any. The show moves to the Buffalo art center next.
Burchfield, who lived from 1893 to 1967, grew up in Ohio but lived most of his adult life in Buffalo. He never painted in the Brandywine area. He didn’t hesitate to set work aside for decades, coming back to it 30 years later to finish it, sometimes by adding strips of paper to the side or top to expand his original vision.
He worked in watercolors, which he believed was a more egalitarian medium than oils. And he didn’t work in small canvasses, laid flat as most watercolorists do. He worked on huge canvasses, held erect by an easel. Andrew Wyeth also chose to work outside the art mainstream in media, with his early successes coming in watercolor until Wyeth became entranced with egg tempera and began working in that.
These connections between Burchfield and Wyeth allows viewers to take a fresh look at Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and evaluate his place in the art world, says Tom Padon, director of the Brandywine Museum. The museum had planned the show before the staff discovered Wyeth had gone to visit Burchfield in 1945.
Burchfield would go on to become the first artist to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, which catapulted him to the national art arena. He had his own gallery, and museums began to collect his work.
One thing fueling Burchfield’s immersion in nature was his interest in transcendentalism, the belief that what people learn about themselves and the world goes beyond what they can experience through the five senses.
“He was very attuned to the rhythms of nature in the time of day, the seasons and the sounds,” Padon says. He had notebooks in which he recorded “all day sketches” that helped him remember the sights, sounds and feeling of a particular moment.
The first gallery in the exhibit is devoted to his earlier works, with a look at how he prepared himself, including some of the diagrams for the images he embedded in his paintings. He called each a “convention for abstract thought,” including imbecility, dangerous brooding and the fascination of evil.
“He wouldn’t have thought it mattered that you didn’t recognize what the convention symbol was,” Padon says. “To him, it layered in meaning.”
Look around the first gallery in the exhibit, and you’d be hard-pressed to believe the same man did all the work. The styles, the brush strokes and the colors are vastly different. Keep looking and some things, like his use of light and contrasts, begin to stand out.
Burchfield, as a young man, even worked as a wallpaper designer. The show includes one design he liked so much, he went back and made a painting of it.
The most engrossing of Burchfield’s works on exhibit come in the second gallery. They begin with “Nighthawks at Twilight,” a painting of trees with oddly rounded shapes, with birds rising up into the darkness.
It’s one of his works that best depicts the feeling that the landscape is alive, Padon says. Pieces of trees and meadow seem to be more than trees or meadow, and a shading along the top of the trees could be ... night falling, monsters rising, the sounds of the forest.
“There’s all these mysteries within his paintings,” says Lewis.
The same is true of “Midsummer Caprice,” a scene of a marsh in which the insects loom large, sending reverberations into the landscape as Burchfield tries to depict the sounds, a process he called Audio Cryptograms and Synesthesia.
“It seems at times I should be a composer of sounds, not only of rhythms and colors,” he once wrote. “Walking under the trees, I felt as if the color made sound."
Lewis singles out “Nighthawks at Twilight” and “Summer Afternoon,” a painting of a marsh in late summer dominated by dragonfly in the foreground, as her favorites in the show.
“It makes you feel the heaviness of late summer,” she says.
Contact Betsy Price at (302) 324-2884 or beprice@ delawareonline.com.
If you go
“Exalted Nature: The Real and Fantastic World of Charles E. Burchfield,” on exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Rd, Chadds Ford, Pa., through Nov. 16. Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $12, adults; $8, seniors ages 65 and older; $6, children ages 6 and older. Visit brandywinemuseum.org or call (610) 388-2700.
Pop around the corner to see “Matthew Jensen: Alongside Tall Grasses,” the Brooklyn photographer’s look at the Brandywine River. The photos, propped against the wall, show green scenes, historic towns and small discoveries – including a dead frog. He also offers a poster, with beautiful flowers on one side and the museum’s walking trails on the other to encourage viewers to hit the paths like he did.