Monday, May 17, 2010

Messages from the Heartland

Messages from the Heartland

By Tom Wachunas

When the 26 year-old Pablo Picasso unveiled his massive “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907, reaction from critics, friends, and the public at large was a nearly unanimous howl of vitriolic disapproval. Even life-long friend and co-founder of the color-crazed Fauves, Henri Matisse, called the painting “repulsive.” But there was a method to Picasso’s apparent madness (which spawned the birth of Cubism), and much of it sprang from a studied appreciation of the gauntlet thrown down years before by the postimpressionist genius, Paul Cezanne. In fact, Cezannes’s influence on Picasso (and Matisse) at this point was so ingrained that the Spaniard said of his French elder (who died in 1906), “Cezanne is my father. He was the father of us all.”

More than any other seminal artist of Modernism, it was Cezanne who pointed the way to the complete re-invention of picturemaking, right down to the rudiments of visual perception itself. His radical challenging of the conventions of academic or “beautiful” art impacted the early decades of the 20th century, when Europe would see the rise of the Fauves (“wild beasts”), Cubism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, and pure Abstraction. In turn, America would see for itself the “shocking” evidence of some of these stylistic developments in the explosive 1913 Armory Show in New York City. For American artists who had as yet never been to Europe, it was literally a real eye-opener. The infamous Armory Show unlocked the floodgates, and the torrent of Modernism – its freedoms, its radicalism, its utter newness - had officially made its way to America, where it would take on increasingly distinct regional identities and manifestations.

One of those regions was the American heartland, and is the subject of a stunning new exhibition called “Against The Grain: Modernism In The Midwest,” at the Massillon Museum of Art. Curated by Massillon Museum Executive Director Christine Fowler, the show features approximately 65 paintings by 40 artists that chronicle (1900-1950) modernist styles by artists native to or working in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. While the show is certainly not an exhaustive study (and it was not intended to be) of modernist art from these states, it is an effectively probing look at important developments in centers of artistic activity – Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Louis- by significant as well as lesser-known artists. As such, this is a delightful, even required viewing experience for anyone either casually or seriously interested in the roots of the visual languages still very much spoken today – some, of course, more “popular” or common than others.

While the sheer diversity of painting techniques and media here could warrant more lengthy discussions of specific works and their significance, what resonates most with me is an intriguing thread that runs throughout the collection: rural scenes and urban landscapes, or combinations thereof. Indigenous to these works is an abiding, often haunting poeticism - very evident in Charles Burchfield’s watercolor, “Twilight Moon,” for example - powerfully revealing the artists’ efforts to define and render the essence, indeed the magic and spirituality of a time and a place.

Sometimes that essence is eerie and melancholic, as in the 1948 oil by Santos Zingale, “White Station.” Four red gas pumps stand like mute sentinels in a foreboding setting, conjuring shades of Giorgio de Chirico, the prominent Italian Surrealist. A similar, lonely mood pervades the desolate plain and exaggerated architecture in Harold Noeker’s “Angular Landscape (Division Street).” The figure of a factory worker is dwarfed by a huge mechanical monstrosity, looking like something from “War of the Worlds,” in Arthur Osver’s “Red Ventilator.” For a particularly strange perspective on evocative light peeking through ominous clouds, and bathing the black hills that overlook a country house with factory nearby, there’s a compelling, untitled gouache by Raphael Gleitsmann.

And there are plenty more such meditations, from rustbelt musings and plains vistas, to pleasantly cluttered urban neighborhoods, many imbued with vibrant color and warm, optimistic sensibilities. Seen in the aggregate, they present a substantive vision of what was once a newfound release from the traditional expectations of making paintings. This show, then, is fascinating evidence of a profoundly important era of painterly lyricism. It’s a remarkable testament to that era’s lasting and unique impact on the heart of America.

Photo: “The Pool" by William Sommer, 1918, courtesy Massillon Museum of Art and, on view in the exhibit “Against The Grain: Modernism In The Midwest,” at the Massillon Museum of Art through September 12.

Located at 121 Lincoln Way East (Ohio 172) in downtown Massillon, Ohio

For information call (330) 833 – 4061 or visit

1 comment:

JMe said...

I am standing in the Dali museum in st Petersburg FL, remembering watching Tom Wachunas working on a copy of the last supper. I'm glad to see you have pursued your passions.