I believe it was at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City where I first saw this jewel of a painting from across the room, beckoning me to come closer. I am not clear on the details, but I remember it was not a large painting, although I stood in front of it for a long time, mesmerized by its seductive power. I felt as if I had made a new discovery, so profound, like discovering a new planet. It was Dance of Spring (Song of The Birds) by Joseph Stella.
This was my first encounter with the artist Joseph Stella’s symbolist paintings. Most of us know Stella for his futuristic-industrial paintings from art history class. He was influenced by the Italian futurists in works like The Battle of Lights or his ambitious, monumental NewYork Interpreted-Voice of the City, an epic five-paneled piece. Full of innovation and complex iconography, it is considered by many art historians to be one of the masterpieces of American Art.
Stella’s subjects are diverse, ranging from nature to technology to birds and bridges. Underlying all of his subjects is an interest in and subjective use of symbols, not an established use of known allegorical references but a modern, personal individualism. These works I find strange, ambivalent, oddly ambiguous, mystical and seductive.
After my encounter at the Kemper Museum I decided to further investigate the works of Stella. I was surprised and fascinated by what I discovered, but one particular piece stuck with me and continues to hold me spellbound. In Tree of My Life, a sort of Garden of Eden is presented, bursting forth with an abundance of life- flowers, birds, fruit, butterflies and vegetation. Like many of Stella’s works, symmetry plays an important role: a duality of contradictions, forces of light and dark or good and evil. You can almost smell the air, fragrant with flowers and fruit, a garden of earthly delights where fruit, vegetables and flowers become phallic and fecund. Stella’s narrative is a complex synthesis of abstraction and representation. The central tree figure bursts forth in a circular form, like a mandala or Native American dreamcatcher; light emanates from its center, an antenna simultaneously projecting and collecting information. A sky of cobalt blue cradles this circular form. A tangle of branches and tendrils creates a strangled tension. According to Stella the bulbous and deformed tree trunk represents “the first fierce struggle in the snare that evil spirits set on our path”. The act of art making was a divinely spiritual act for Stella; his Christian leanings can be seen in many works depicting Madonna and Child.
I have always had a strange attraction to the oddballs, those characters who are not easily categorized, who don’t fit cleanly into the pantheon of art history. I appreciate works of art that I can get lost in, that reveal themselves slowly over time. I appreciate their detail, their complexity in execution and content. Over time, Tree of My Life has continued to reveal its secrets to me, hidden within its fantastic frenzy.