Artist Charles E. Burchfield is known for his mystical and visionary interpretations of American nature. His paintings of natural scenes and landscapes are often florid and psychedelic—the colors richer and deeper, light more radiant and intense, and always with florid texture that seems to radiate on forever. His paintings are nearly fantastical, but seem to speak to something beyond a pure fantasy realm—it is as if he is communicating his sense of an innate, organic technology at work in the natural world.
The First Hepaticas, a 1917–18 painting by Burchfield, is currently on display as part of the American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe exhibition. Burchfield completed The First Hepaticas in the location where he created most of his early works, his childhood home in the city of Salem, Ohio, where he lived from the ages of five to 28. It was there that he experienced what he later deemed his “Golden Year,” 1917, because of a prolific, inspired output.
Hepaticas are a wildflower found in most Northeastern states in America. Their appearance at the end of winter is taken to signal the coming of spring, as they are often one of the first flora to sprout amongst the carpet of brush and fallen leaves left from the cold seasons.
Here, Burchfield captures this symbolic moment. Most of The First Hepaticas is a gloomy landscape of drab, brown leafless trees, some with hollows like gaping mouths. In the bottom right corner you see a small grouping of white flowers haloed by light. The flowers are suggestive of life and optimism in the morass of gloom and deadness. They are harbingers of regeneration, and perhaps Burchfield believes we can learn from nature in this respect.
Several of Burchfield’s early paintings (spanning the years 1916–20) are included in the show and in the exhibition catalogue. The catalogue also includes an essay by MoMA Drawings curator Esther Adler, “The Problem of Our American Collection: MoMA Collects at Home” exploring the museum’s beginnings, drawing on numerous quotations from Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of MoMA. The essay provides much insight into the ideas that founded the institution, and the roles figures like Burchfield and his contemporaries played in the shaping of its collection.
American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe is on view now until January 26, 2014, in The Michael H. Dunn Gallery on the second floor.