Friday, December 4, 2015

Taking Art By Storm

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The sky looks foul, but there are no birds to be seen. A heaviness points to clouds pregnant with rain. Thunder rumbles far away.
“Storm in the Rocky Mountains”
Albert Bierstadt. 1886.
(The Brooklyn Museum, NY)

This time of year is apt to give us forecasts that aren’t quite as sunny and cheerful as midsummer, so the collection I’ve chosen focuses on unfavorable weather in paintings – more precisely, rain storms. I’ve decided, however, to give a wide berth to nautical storms and tornadic depictions. No sense in being miserable on a heaving deck or scampering into the cellar. Instead, we’ll take in a few storms from the imaginary comfort of an expansive, rustic porch – the kind with an overhang wide enough to keep even the worst elements at bay. If you let your mind’s eye wander across the porch’s well-worn planks, it’s the sort of place to immerse oneself in a good book or idly pass the time with a cup of coffee. Back against the wall are a few massive rocking chairs of odd vintage. Make yourself at home, and we’ll let artistic visions command the view.
“Silence Has Settled”
Nicolai Dubovski. 1890.
(State Russian Museum, St. Petersbur, Russia)

The first downpour is courtesy of Albert Bierstadt’s “Storm in the Rocky Mountains.” Bierstadt was a member of the Hudson River School – a thoroughly American product made up of artists who glorified the vanishing wilderness with its grand scale, and minimized the significance of man. The example I’ve chosen has enough rugged ingredients to satisfy the genre, offering the viewer a composition filled with clouds curling into mountainous shadows. Dramatic darks and lights push each other in an atmospheric fight that ignores a miniature tableau of figures racing after riderless horses. Even though deer frolic in the painting and a waterfall gurgles to one side of the composition, this particular piece is rather understated for the Hudson River School. If all the stops had been pulled out, there would have been lightning, a rainbow, and an erupting volcano. Maybe even a total eclipse. Of Jupiter.
“La Tempete”
Pierre Auguste Cot. 1880.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

Russian landscape artist, Nicolai Dubovski, took a far different approach with his brooding sky in “Silence Has Settled.” Well-modeled clouds have a solidity of form as they muscle their way across the sky. The viewer must look beneath the warm shapes to see a veiled deluge that has passed. Dubovski has dared to take something normally ethereal, rendered it with more definition than stone, and has gotten away with it. The artist was a member of the Peredvizhniki – “The Wanderers,” or “The Itinerants” – who protested the idyllic standards of romantic beauty at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and often focused instead on ethnic history and the simple folk life. This particular example may not fit their mold very well, considering Dubovski’s treatment of a regal sky.

I suppose we should take a look at Pierre Auguste Cot’s indulgent painting, “La Tempete,” or “The Storm.” This piece is a prime example of what the Ecol d’ Beau Arts was churning out in its heyday. “The Storm” was a huge hit in the Salon of 1873, but if we spied these two knuckleheads – who obviously have been up to no good – running past our porch, I think grandpa would storm out the door with his shotgun. What is interesting is this piece shows very little of the storm, save a lightning bolt, but we know the wind is going to howl and rain will come in torrents. As if little Miss Deeds even needs to get her wispy frock wet.
“The Hailstorm” Thomas Hart Benton. 1940.
(Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Neb.)

Okay, the two have fled and are now tangled in briers and poison ivy, and I'm itching to focus on Thomas Hart Benton’s “The Hailstorm.” His vision is of yet another brand of painting. While shapes in his work are well-defined and solid, he had a strong tendency to ignore strait lines and employ curvaceous forms to convey movement. His color is harsh. Benton’s images are as straightforward as the Midwest, trading visual subtlety for the occasional delicate metaphor.

Next on the horizon is a must-have in the storm genre – J.M.W. Turner. His portfolio is loaded with nautical storms, so the example I’ve chosen is a bit unusual for the artist. “Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower,” is longer on atmosphere than the title itself. This otherwise moody painting somehow conveys a kind of serenity in which the viewer can almost hear the calming silence of  a storm’s passing. Perhaps it’s the rainbow, although Turner has atypically ignored the chance to heighten the composition’s color with such a weather phenomenon.
“Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater,
Cumberland, a Shower”
J.M.W. Turner. 1798.
(The Tate Museum, London)

Our final storm jumps into a different medium, courtesy of Swedish artist Anders Zorn. A masterful portraitist in the mold of John Singer Sargent, Zorn enjoyed international acclaim among movers and shakers of his day. One of his presidential portraits hangs in the White House. Another is housed in the National Portrait Gallery down the street. This, from a Swede. But we’re putting his paintings and portraiture aside to look at his etching, “Storm.” Like Cot’s “La Tempete,” this piece avoids showing too much of the oncoming deluge. Unlike ‘Tempete,’ Zorn’s work captures the essence of the storm with much less fuss over detail and without color. The ambiguous quality of etching leans more on mood and movement, and we can feel the anxiety in the rider as he bowls toward the viewer.
Anders Zorn. 1891.

The cloud burst of paintings has passed, and it’s time to get off the porch and get to work while the sun shines. Of course, rain is the least of worries for those of us living in northern climes. But we’ll leave snow – and other four-letter words – for another day.

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