New York

Charles Burchfield

Bernard Danenberg Galleries

The early watercolors by Charles Burchfield made up a remarkable show. Burchfield is a very attractive personality, and this, plus the familiarity of his style, has tended to conspire against any very searching analysis of his work—one’s critical faculties are charmed, as it were! The watercolors in the present show were painted between 1915 and 1917, and for the critic they have the advantage of being similar enough to Burchfield’s mature work to be related to it without difficulty, but at the same time different enough to allow one to gain some perspective on the artist’s style. In the last analysis, I am not very sure how essential this is, since in any case the real interest of Burchfield’s work is not in its style but rather in the personality of its maker and his relation as an artist to his culture.

One sees in these watercolors two salient qualities, in addition to the animistic fantasy we know more clearly from his mature work. The first is the intensity of the color, which is heightened and lyrical, often pure, rather like Gauguin or the Munch of the few years just before and after the turn of the century. The second remarkable aspect of it is Burchfield’s ability to invent and to control flat patterns, which may be of line or of area—his later work is far more atmospheric than this. Now these two qualities, the kind of color and the kinds of flatness in the work, fit in very well with the art nouveau idiom, and so the question must be asked: How much did the artist know of art when he painted these paintings? He was between twenty-two and twenty-four, and had never been farther away from his home in Salem, Ohio, than Cleveland, where he studied for the four years ending in 1916. What might he have seen of art nouveau or of oriental prints, and how much of the style of these watercolors is due to such influences, how much has its source in the artist’s own imagination?

The question is especially difficult because Burchfield had as thoroughly visionary a temperament at this age as later in life; which is to say that his sensibility might very well have exceeded whatever his environment had to offer, and by a wide margin. I do think, however, that one can easily underrate what his environment could and did offer, just as a Frenchman, viewing French cultural life as it has been since Napoleon, might have to remind himself that Montaigne did not feel that he was living out in the sticks on his estate near Bordeaux. After all, in Burchfield’s youth even Cincinnati was a major artistic center. Anyway, we know that while in Cleveland Burchfield got to see and admired Japanese prints, Chinese scrolls, Leon Bakst; and one can extrapolate a great deal in the way of both flatness and color from these sources, if one has the imagination that Burchfield had. Of book illustration he had of course always absorbed a great deal, even in Salem, and this, too, is very important, since in Burchfield’s youth the styles of book illustration were not nearly as distinct from high art styles as they are today—in fact, they were not distinct at all. And it is not so very far from the work of illustrators like Rackham or Parrish to many of the forms and even colors in the paintings in this show. All in all, I wonder 79 how true it is to present Burchfield’s art as a triumph of personal vision; or perhaps one can say that the development of a visionary faculty is one way, among others, of turning cultural limitations to good account. At all events, it was a stunning show.

Jerrold Lanes