Art museums are a little like schools, but a lot more fun. There are no tests and you can leave whenever you want. And there's a whole lot more beautiful and mysterious stuff to look at than any school you ever attended.
Drove out to Hagerstown, MD on Saturday to join their reception celebrating the opening of their brand new Kaylor Atrium. The Museum underwent a big expansion 17 years ago that wrapped several new gallery spaces around an open brick paved plaza. Over this last year construction workers raised a lofty glass canopy over the couryard creating an enclosed and climate controlled gathering space. They did a beautiful job linking the new structure to the historic old building.
Above is Brad Pingrey, the Chair of the Museum's Board, opening the evening's celebration. Brad is standing at the original front entrance to the Museum's 1931 building which has been shut for years. Now it is open again to usher visitors to the new Atrium directly into the Museum's Old Master gallery. Here's the way the Museum looked back when it originally opened.
Here below is one of WCMFA's best known works, Frederic Church's Scene on Catskill Creek, oil on canvas, 1847. It's getting new fans by being reproduced in a nifty brochure put out by the Thomas Cole Historical Site, an organization that preserved the studio Cole built and worked in in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Cole of course was Frederick Church's teacher and the founder of the Hudson River School, a movement strongly represented in this Museum's Permanent Collection. Their brochure maps out the actual locations (with on site photos) where this and other Hudson River artists worked from the specific sources they chose. It's all reproduced on their website and is well worth clicking on.
For me the Hudson River School artists were a revelation for my own paintings. Growing up near their favored haunts perhaps helped, but I felt remarkably at home in their overgrown forests and glistening shores. After turning away from the abstract work that had been my initial direction with painting, their example gave me both technical help and a big boost to my painting spirits. In graduate school I used to joke that I was "the last living Hudson River School Painter." Since then my paintings have evolved away from that style, but I've got warm memories.
Church's work is often delightful and so it is with this painting. One thing that lends the painting expressive power is the way Church links the mountainous clouds with the earth below. Look at the far left side of the painting where the artist masses together trees and boulders to form a wedge shaped triange jutting out into the water. It has a 45 degree angle on its upper right hand side that mirrors exactly the same prominent angle found on the right side of his big cloud form. This is a design idea that Church invented. He realized his job was to come up with some abstract connections that would pull together this richly embroidered world.
He carries this idea further with the dark foreground trees at the right hand side of the canvas. Imagine laying a ruler on top of the painting so it lines up with the edge of the middle branch and the lowest branch of the dark tree. Sure enough, connecting these two innocent looking leafy branches recreates that same 45 degree diagonal we found at the left side and in the huge white cloud.
Looking at the Catskill Creek Church imagined a resonating harmony between the ever-so-different elements of earth and sky. By inventing silhouetted shapes that share the same movement, he threads together what would have felt like completely separated forms. It's a triumph of human imagination. Over a century and a half after this oil was painted, Church is saying to us "Keep you eyes open- there are amazing things you will discover by just looking at your world."