Thursday, November 28, 2013

`I Dreamt of Sunflowers Last Night'

Late in the second decade of the twentieth century, Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), using an ink wash and graphite, drew an untitled picture of turkeys and a drooping, funereal sunflower. The image is ghostly and mournful, an impression strengthened by its creation during the ongoing stalemate and slaughter on the Western Front. Sunflowers often turn up in Burchfield’s paintings and drawings. This one is somber, not radiant, perhaps a response to Blake. In his journal entry for March 26, 1917 (Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place, 1993), he writes: 

“Pipers – woods + frogs in the glassy ponds – In the twilight woods – a leaf whistle  - a bird flies up at my foot unseen – a stray wind in the trees – I heard the stream coming out of gray void – Hoary ghostly fields – wet soggy turf. A star low in the east – I dreamt of sunflowers last night –” 

The “Hoary ghostly fields” might describe the wraith-like turkeys. In 1916, Burchfield had painted “Ghost Plants (Corn and Sunflowers),” with the flower again mimicking a man in sorrow. He might almost be describing this painting in a dream recorded in his journal twenty-six years later, on Dec. 22, 1942: 

“Every flower in the garden was white—first in order came huge sunflowers—the leaves and stalks pale gray green, the flowers with pale greenish white discs, surrounded by large, curling, luxuriant rays or petals, a waxy snowwhite. Next in order come gigantic white carnations—they had just been watered, and the cool dampness resulting was filled with their powerful scent—Next came some white gladiolas, which Shakespeare said were his special pride--`Crescent Moon Gladiolas’ he called them [the journal editor, J. Benjamin Townsend, says of the Shakespearean reference: `Unlocated’].” 

Also in 1916, Burchfield painted “Moon Through Young Sunflowers,” of which he writes in the journal for Sept. 10: “A scene with grotesque sunflowers in queer attitudes.” So much for grotesquerie. That year, 1916, also produced “Row of Sunflowers,” a cheery, wholesome rendering of sunflowers and rural living, but for the ghostly leaves again.  In 1921 came “Sunflowers,” almost greeting card-ready but with the same pale leaves. I started this post because I thought Burchfield’s haunting image of sunflower and turkeys was an interesting variation on traditional Thanksgiving Day themes, until I realized Burchfield’s gift was so various and evolving, defying easy critical conclusions, that he could spin an image in contradictory ways across his long career. Consider the way he echoes Thoreau the naturalist in this early journal entry, dated Aug. 23, 1913, when he was twenty years old:

“Along the creek here wild sunflowers abounded--they overran everything and seemed ever on the point of even overcoming the trees themselves. A single flower is odd. The drooping petals give the center an appearance of jutting forcibly upward.”

Among Burchfield’s teachers at the Cleveland School of Art was Henry George Keller (1870-1949). For a more conventional but equally beautiful Thanksgiving scene, see “Premature Winter.”

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