All artists need motivation.
Some get it from their social circumstances, some from their teachers and mentors. Others cobble it together from the books, paintings and concerts of their youth and young adulthood. Charles Burchfield, the master watercolorist whose work we are lucky to see on a regular basis in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, certainly drew inspiration from all of these places.
But his deepest motivation – what compelled him to put paintbrush to paper – seemed to come above all from within himself. That almost genetic urge, which predates and supersedes all the outward influences that appear in Burchfield’s paintings, shines through in Tullis Johnson’s superb exhibition “Charles E. Burchfield: In His Own Words,” which runs in the Burchfield Penney through March 17.
It would be impossible to concretely illustrate the strong inner drive that sits at the heart of Burchfield’s unique style and his successful creation of a new and fantastical approach to painting. But Johnson, through his smart selection of excerpts from Burchfield’s extensive journals, his extraordinarily critical notes of self-motivation and other ephemera, provides new insights into the artist’s singular and borderline obsessive desire to create art.
The show begins with a series of personal mantras scribbled in cursive in his notebooks. They sometimes read like fully formed poems: “Give yourself up entirely to nature,” one reads, “let nature woo you – / go out with no preconceived ideas / Be alone with God.” Others are more whimsical and harder to pin down, such as one that simply reads, “Oh gee, oh gosh, oh my, oh my, oh my!” Burchfield, Johnson said, would often tack these notes up in his studio to serve as little bits of visual encouragement while he was painting.
We also see examples of some of his whimsical designs for camouflage he produced while enlisted in the Army during World War I, accompanied by letters that paint a grim picture of his spirit during his brief stint at Camp Jackson in South Carolina.
One of the more remarkable documents in a show littered with them is a letter Burchfield wrote toward the end of his service in 1918. The letter, typed in numbered paragraphs and straightforward prose, firmly requested he be released from service to pursue several pending art exhibitions at galleries in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
It would be hard to imagine an army sergeant today requesting to be discharged, essentially, because of a need to do watercolors. But this was how deep and all-possessing Burchfield’s dedication to his art was. And it would never abate thereafter.
The exhibition then takes us on a Burchfield-narrated tour through his development as a painter, with wonderful examples of rural scenes including “Late Afternoon Twilight” and “Grain Elevators,” both from the early ’20s. After that, we see the emergence of the jaw-dropping, otherworldly approach he would take in an effort to compress the sensory wonders of nature into two dimensions.
One of the most arresting pieces of writing in the show is one of Burchfield’s little post-it notes meant to remind him what he was supposed to be doing. I can imagine him glancing up at it in his studio from time to time as he dipped his brush into the paint.
“There is a reality beyond pictorial reality,” he wrote. “The reality of work, life – experience. What a noon whistle means to a worker who has a hard life.”