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The Brandywine River Museum of Art’s panoramic, floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the sparkling Brandywine Creek, which hugs the narrow shoreline here behind this refurbished 19th-century gristmill. On the museum’s second and third floors, where foliage and tree limbs nearly press against the glass, one has the feeling of being suspended within the upper reaches of a forest. It is a fitting perch for “Exalted Nature: The Real and Fantastic World of Charles E. Burchfield.”
Co-curated by Audrey Lewis, at the Brandywine, and Nancy Weekly, at Buffalo, N.Y.’s Burchfield Penny Art Center, where the show will travel in December, it is a charming retrospective of more than 50 large watercolors and an ample selection of supporting drawings by the Ohio-born landscape painter who made the Buffalo area his adopted home.
Burchfield (1893-1976) studied at the Cleveland School of Art and came of age with 20th-century European Modernism. But his sources were manifold—and often at odds. From 1921 to 1929, he worked as a wallpaper designer, producing beautiful floral patterns that hover mysteriously between representation and abstraction, and which rival those of William Morris. Displayed here is his first wallpaper design, “The Birches” (1921). A dark, cool, creamy forest of pink, black, brown and white, it has an enchanted, crystalline light.
For much of his life, however, Burchfield was an American Realist, a reverent naturalist who painted primarily en plein air in the country and city. Underrepresented here is his 20-year middle-period, when he produced mostly straightforward, illustrative landscapes that are fairly unremarkable when compared with the sinister works for which he is best known.
Nightmare and fairy-tale coalesce in these surreal, dreamy and chilling paintings, which reveal Burchfield as a dark-edged visionary and Romantic. The first work to greet you in this otherwise chronological show is “White Picket Fence” (c. 1965). A watercolor nearly 5 feet tall, it is dominated by gray sky, freakish crows and a ghoulish, pyramidal grouping of bushes and trees. Looming, climbing like flames, they sport a single spying eye. Running across the picture’s bottom edge is the white picket fence. It suggests sharp, bared teeth more than soothing suburbia.
In Burchfield’s signature paintings, convention (the “Real”) can clash with imagination (the “Fantastic”). We experience an artist continually at a crossroads; a landscape painter struggling to reconcile his conflicting desires to be faithful to what he sees, on the one hand, and faithful to what he feels, on the other. These watercolors bring to mind precedents as diverse as William Blake, Albert Bierstadt, Albert Pynkham Ryder, Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Dove. They reveal the influence of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Edgar Allan Poe and the seeds of Walt Disney’s storybook magic.
Van Gogh, using nature as a catalyst for emotion, lacked Burchfield’s ambivalence. In 1916, Burchfield created the vibrant van Gogh-esque “Untitled (Plowed Field),” a watercolor dominated by a broad, arcing swath of rushing orange and lime-green furrows. But that same year he also painted the pared-down watercolor “Nature’s Gothic Window,” in which a forest’s open spaces culminate in Gothic arches, and trees are depicted as shorthand symbols with spiritual overtones. In many of Burchfield’s works, especially considering his fervent employment of the halo, I sense an artist who sees nature—in its unfathomable beauty and violence—as an expression of the divine.
The writings of Henry David Thoreau, the abbreviated landscapes depicted in the woodblock prints of Hokusai, and the fluidity and continuity of traditional Chinese scroll paintings all inspired Burchfield’s “All Day Sketches.” In these stream-of-consciousness line drawings, which incorporate notes in the artist’s own hand, Burchfield explored, in a single picture, the transitions and weather he experienced in a day or sometimes over several days or even seasons. Peppered across one drawing from 1915 are the observations “trees lit wh[ite] with lightning,” “wind coming” and “first grey light.”
He was also clearly influenced by the art and ideas of Modern European abstractionists, specifically Wassily Kandinsky, who explored synesthesia and symbolism, and who freed line, color and shape from the confines of representation. Burchfield explored these ideas in his “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” drawings in which he devised obtuse, ominous abstract symbols to represent, among other things, imbecility, morbidness, melancholy and evil. In “Study for Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night” (1917), a purple crescent shape inside a black church tower stands for fear and for the sound of the ringing bells, which terrified Burchfield as a child.
The more you learn about the ideas and personal symbolism employed in Burchfield’s paintings, however, the further he seems from having realized his ambitions, especially in pictures—with haunted “cat-eyed” houses, enormous insects and animated, anthropomorphic trees—that can verge on cartoonish. In his most compelling work, though, Burchfield synthesizes his various influences and creates believable universes that are wholly his own.
In “The Fragrance of Spring (Bee Hepaticas)” (c. 1962), in which the artist said he sought “to paint the odor of Hepaticas and the smell of the earth under sun-warmed leaves,” Burchfield seemingly sets the whole world ablaze. Neither representational nor abstract, it is a menacing black portal surrounded by a frontal assault of yellow and violet blossoms. The last work here, and perhaps Burchfield’s final painting, is the mystical “Early Spring” (1966-67). Its snow-covered trees glisten like a frosted wedding cake and lord it over a field of lemon-yellow flowers. The scene gleams like a wonderland ice castle.
Nearby is “North Woods in Spring” (1951-64), a stark, melancholy picture emitting silvery light. Its solemn trees stand like totem poles gathered for a meeting. The forest seemingly is riddled with mouths and eyes; animated limbs and knots radiate, rippling the gray atmosphere like stones dropped into a pond. There is a sense in these best paintings that we’ve been immersed, suspended in nature—and that, through Burchfield, it is speaking directly to us.
Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.