There was a moment when I was looking at the new Charles Burchfield show at the Brandywine River Museum of Art that I stepped back from the individual paintings to look at the show as a whole. Suddenly, the gallery seemed alive and pulsating, with waves of energy surging from painting to painting. Cicadas made their sawing song, crows cawed, thunder clapped, sleet stung, and many-eyed trees looked on with a hint of menace. The works seemed to be joined in one ecstatic chorus.
Then the moment passed, as such moments do. But each individual work did look a little bit different than before. These were no longer interesting curiosities by an oddball artist but works that were supposed to be both records of natural phenomena and emotional experiences in themselves. Before, one asked whether we were seeing nature or the painter's desires. But having entered, even for a moment, into Burchfield's deeply romantic sensibility, the distinction no longer seemed to matter.
"Exalted Nature: The Real and Fantastic World of Charles E. Burchfield," organized by the Brandywine and the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, is probably one of the largest Burchfield shows you are likely to see. Burchfield painted mostly watercolors, and many museums and collectors are reluctant to give these works on paper the prolonged exposure to light and to the public that major traveling exhibitions require. (There is also a beautiful catalog, by Audrey Lewis of Brandywine and Nancy Weekly of Burchfield Penney, cocurators of the exhibition.)
It is not, however, a complete career retrospective of Burchfield (1893-1976). His work during the 1920s and '30s, the scenes of workers' neighborhoods and industrial landscapes for which he first became well known, are absent. Instead the show concentrates on what came before and after that, idiosyncratic works that seem at once to echo both van Gogh and Walt Disney, yet are unmistakably Burchfield.
The first period consists of the couple of years before America's 1917 entry into World War I, after Burchfield had finished art school in Cleveland and moved back home to Sharon, Ohio, where his mother had a skylight put in his childhood bedroom to make it into an art studio. He painted at a furious pace, producing hundreds of works. In some, he attempted to record all the changes that happened in a place during a day. He also developed a bizarre system of assigning shapes to emotional states, such as brooding and morbidity, which continued to appear in his work decades later.
Mostly, though, he was engaged in a quest to record what Wordsworth called "spots of time," moments of revelation and change. On one occasion, he took his brushes and watercolors out into the middle of a spring storm, which had both violent thunder and unseasonable snow, in an attempt to get the feeling down on paper. He showed landscapes that were unpeopled, yet alive with human emotion.
His style changed when he moved to a suburb of Buffalo in 1921 to take a job designing wallpaper, though he occasionally adapted early works as the basis for wallpaper patterns. In 1930 he became the first artist ever to have a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art; it concentrated on the early work, not his current production.
The majority of the works in the exhibition were painted after World War II, when Burchfield started to revisit the romantic explorations of his youth, only this time with mature technique and increased ambition. In some cases, the revisiting was quite literal. He pasted new sheets of paper around the edges of his earlier compositions and painted around and over them.
Perhaps the most extreme of these is Summer Afternoon, a 1948 alteration of a 1917 painting. This scene of a gently flowing stream, with an oversized dragonfly in the foreground, seems alive not just with insects and vegetation, but also with nervous squiggles in the sky, suggestions of eyes in the clouds, and above all with emanations - shown as parallel, very short curving and spiraling brushstrokes. These might represent the sounds of crickets and frogs, since the artist was preoccupied with sound. But they are just as likely to be trying to show us the unseen energies and vibrations of the universe itself.
When Burchfield began that painting, the attempt to show an unseen universe was probably a youthful, romantic imagining. By the time he returned to it 31 years later, the world had changed. Broadcasting was commonplace, physicists had shown a world less solid than it seems, and the atomic bomb had unleashed unimaginable destruction from something too tiny to imagine. The unseen world of the mystic had been taken over by the scientist. I don't know that Burchfield was thinking in these terms, but clearly, he meant this work to be more than a picture of a brook.
American painters have often traveled to record natural wonders, but Burchfield, who lived not far from Niagara Falls, which apparently was not an interesting subject for him, found the sublime at the edge of the lawn, the end of the street, or in his backyard when the first spring plants suddenly started to push through the March snow.
One of his tumultuous pictures, The Moth and the Thunderclap from 1961, is shown alongside a 1920 thunder painting that similarly depicts lightning, none too realistically, as a white hand with many gnarled fingers. The earlier painting is a stronger abstract image; the later one shocks by showing the violence in grayish pastels, fashionable colors at the time. Burchfield appeared to be in a world of his own, equally distant from both the abstract expressionists who were the leading artists of that moment and the pop artists who would soon emerge. Yet a painting like this one distills not just the art of 1961, but midcentury American culture at large. Burchfield has it all: the transcendental, the existential, the angst - and the KAPOW!
A VIBRATING LANDSCAPE
"Exalted Nature: The Real and Fantastic World of Charles E. Burchfield"
Where: Through Nov. 16 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, Baltimore Pike at Hoffman's Mill Road (1 Hoffman's Mill Rd.), Chadds Ford.
Hours: Daily, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $12; seniors 65 and older, $8; students with valid ID and children ages 6-12, $6. Free Sundays until noon.
Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org.