Sunday, March 18, 2018

`Art Keeps Long Hours'

While reading Donald Justice again I was reminded of his fondness for Charles Burchfield, one of my favorite American painters and, like me, a native of Northeastern Ohio. Even at their most stylized, I recognize his landscapes and city scenes. Justice opens New and Selected Poems (1995) with “On a Picture by Burchfield”:

"Writhe no more, little flowers. Art keeps long hours.
Already your agony has outlasted ours."

In Burchfield’s paintings everything is alive and writhing. Even Ohio winters writhe with spring latency. Some artists see desolation and sterility wherever they look. For Burchfield, even dead landscapes are charged with life. Objects in his paintings – trees, flowers, houses, seldom people -- are sacred because they live. “Pantheism” pushes the idea too far. Burchfield celebrates creation.
For fifty-six years he kept an almost daily journal. Written in pencil, ink and crayon, it amounted to 10,000 manuscript pages and more than 2 million words. J. Benjamin Townsend spent 15 years editing the sprawling journal housed at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo since the artist’s death in 1967. In 1993, the State University of New York published the result: Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place, Townsend’s 737-page selection, arranged chronologically within thematic categories. The Burchfield Penney Art Center now posts daily excerpts from the journal at a site they call “Charles E. Burchfield in his own words.” Here is Burchfield writing on March 12, 1922: “I would like to be the embodiment of March — both in life & art—.” And this, in the Keatsian mode, from Jan. 11, 1914:

“The analytical mind kills poetry. The rainbow was a supernatural event until someone ex­plained it that falling rain broke up the sunlight into colors. Yet it is ignorance not to know it.”

Burchfield had exceptional taste in literature. He loved the great Russians of the 19th century – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. He loved Moby-Dick. He read Yeats’ plays as early as 1915, and appreciated Winesburg, Ohio when it was published in 1919. He adored Willa Cather and read all of her books as they were published. See this entry from Oct. 15, 1948:

“The grass colors beautiful – orange yellow, sun-lit, rich reddish brown, pastel shades of pale brown pink, pale ochre, light gray creamy white, and some weed that gave off a slate gray color. With the sunlit fields of dead grass against a blue-black eastern sky, I thought of My √Āntonia.”

Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916. He never received a conventional liberal-arts education but his culture was deep and broad. He loved music (especially Sibelius) and movies, and read for the best of reasons: pleasure and self-knowledge.

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