April 26, 2011

Modern Shadowplay

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For centuries, Paris has been the center for academic artists, the place where artists from all over Europe gather to enroll in ateliers and seek inspiration from the City of Romance. In the summer months of years past, artists went to rural towns such as Pont-Aven to escape the ephemeral cacophony of modern society and become mesmerized by the still yet animating effects of light and shadow. American painters joined their European counterparts in this quest for beauty and inspiration.

A coherent, consistent description of “Modernism” is quite impossible to pinpoint. At the turn of the century, modern simply meant “contemporary”; as time went on, the term now loosely encompasses artistic responses to the works Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists produced in the early 20th century. The Johnson Museum’s exhibition, Light and Shadow: American Modernist Paintings and Drawings, showcases a solid collection of American “Modern” works from the early 20th century that include intriguing works of art from Edward Hopper, Maurice Prendergast and George Luks. Even at first glance, these artists’ Impressionist and Fauvist roots are impossible to miss. Most of these pieces depict some sort of abstracted cityscape or landscape, while a few earlier works in the group depict figures and opera scenes that are reminiscent of the styles of Degas, Renoir or Cassatt.

A majority of these works are works on paper — gouache, prints and an impressive selection of dazzling watercolors. While the oil paintings in the room by Arthur Dove and Maurice Prendergast seem to be the centerpieces of the exhibition, the most striking images in this gallery are the abstract watercolor landscapes. Unlike oil paint, watercolor strokes are crisp, thin and determined, giving the abstract landscapes an aura of transparent, dreamlike ease.

Those familiar with 20th century American paintings have probably encountered Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting “Night Hawks”, a remarkable image of a night cafe in New York City. It was fascinating to see several of Hopper’s rarely exhibited early works. Edward Hopper’s watercolor painting “Beam Trawler” is a representational depiction of a steamboat that dutifully captures the nuanced colors on this dark, backlit ship, but it is clear that the image aims to express instead of record. In this 1928 image, Hopper is already experimenting with a simplified yet rich treatment of shadow. Unlike watercolor boat scenes by painters such as Winslow Homer, Hopper’s ship is more still and steadfast than a building on land. His composition and manipulation of lighting gives it mass and volume.

Thomas Hart Benton’s untitled watercolor landscape is a playful depiction reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky or even Marc Chagall’s sensibility. Everything in this simple hill scene is reduced to one or two luminous color gradients that glide against each as if floating on water. Some elements of the painting are recognizable as houses and trees, while others calmly degenerate into patches of color that are as mysterious as they are coherent. Two inexplicable strokes of red cleverly brighten and unite the otherwise brown and green dominated landscape.

Another gem in the exhibition is a small hand colored lithograph by Charles Sheeler titled “Yachts”, hiding in the corner of the gallery. The yachts are reduced to the sheer outlines of the sails. Rhythmic curves dance on the page and form shapes that overlap to reveal gently variegated shades of pastels and grays and lingering swift marks of the lithograph pencil.

Original Author: Lucy Li