Friday, August 21, 2009

`Some Rare Gladness'

The Cleveland Museum of Art owns 64 works by Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) but only "White Violets and Coal Mine" is on public display. I viewed it Tuesday and remembered "Sadness," a poem in which Donald Justice mentions the painting in the fourth of its seven stanzas:

“Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine
Just as an evil August night comes down,
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine.
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness —
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness.”

Burchfield painted “White Violets and Coal Mine” in 1918 (he had graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art two years earlier). It’s a spooky painting. The cave is mouth-shaped, the violets are oversized and look like tormented cartoon fairies. A Freudian, no doubt, would have fun with it. I prefer to see it as a collision of the human and natural worlds. Visit any site where the earth has been torn and you’ll see a profusion of hardy, opportunistic weeds and wildflowers – chicory, dandelion, mullein, plantain, yarrow, curly dock and Queen Anne’s lace. As always, Burchfield blurs distinctions between realism and the visionary. Guy Davenport puts it like this in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons:

“His work is so rich that its periods can supply museums with large collections in which he might seem to be only a painter of Ohio small towns, or of mid-American industry, or of woods and forests in all weathers, or of domestic tranquility, or of Creation as the essence of all earthly beauty.”

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