Charles Burchfield’s landscape paintings are riveting. This painting, Sphinx and Milky Way, with its bat-like shapes, celestial falling stars, deep midnight blue and black center, flowers with faces, and symbolic points of light, pulls me in with a kind of intensity I’ve discovered in few others. Burchfield was an avid archivist and journalist. I have a large archive of my own that includes movie stills, design patterns researched from libraries, sketchbooks, and photographs that I jumble together to create new work. After years of collecting, the ideas behind my impulses are still being revealed to me. For this reason I was thrilled when I discovered Burchfield cited inspirations dear to my own work, and in a mania of excitement I started drawing parallels from these artists to what I feel, intuitively, is behind Burchfield’s mysterious landscapes. One such artist is Paul Bowles who wrote “The Sheltering Sky”(1949). I recall reading this book in my Berlin apartment with oil paintings drying around me, not realizing yet that they were taking the oxygen from the room, making me feel sick. So I thought, I’ll just lie down and read this book… When you read the main character’s first-hand telling of his experience as he catches an epidemic fever, you call me up. Like Burchfield’s paintings, that story reaches into you, grabs hold of you and pulls you into a state-of-being that is profound, dark and terrifying.
Burchfield was born in a small town in Ohio in 1893. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art then returned home to live with his mother until he was 28. He describes his early years living at home as his “Golden Years” of painting. For the next twenty years he worked as a wallpaper designer in Buffalo, attaining fame and success with his painting. However, it was not until the age of 51 that he returned to what he considered his great body of work, the fraught landscapes of his “Golden Years.” He took his early sketches and began adding paper on the sides and at the bottoms to elaborate the scenes. In notes he cites going back to many of his earliest influences, including the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. They shared a love for life lived in nature and of deep isolation. Speaking from personal experience, the cold, overcast winters of Norway, Buffalo and Ohio are interchangeable and hence a similar presence in the work of the two artists. Hamsun pioneered “psychological literature” which incorporates stream of consciousness and dialogue from within a character’s mind. Hamsun took from Dostoyevsky and later influenced Thomas Mann, Kafka, Hermann Hesse and Hemingway. There is strength and conviction in Hamsun’s writing, a passion bordering on dark insanity. It is Hamsun’s total immersion in nature and his description of invisible forces that I see in Burchfield’s stylized depiction of the natural world.
“I was conscious all the time that I was following mad whims without being able to do anything about it … . Despite my alienation from myself at that moment, and even though I was nothing but a battleground for invisible forces, I was aware of every detail of what was going on around me.” — Knut Hamsun, “Hunger” 1890
Burchfield paints the twilight hour. Even in scenes where you see the sun breaking through, the atmosphere is dark and mysterious. In the Ingmar Bergman film “Hour of the Wolf” (1968) the main character is a painter who claims twilight is the hour of the wolf, “the time when the most births and death occur.” This time of night has long been cited as a “witching hour” and is the source of anxiety in stories and legends. This twilight of Burchfield’s also brings to mind the brilliant paranoid visions of Wolfgang Von Goethe’s “Faust” (1808) where the devil is physically present trying to lead the young scholar astray. Similarly, Burchfield’s forests animate into a million paranoid eyes of animals or demons. Burchfield has trained himself to see the world through this kind of mysticism, or perhaps has allowed himself the time and seclusion for it to come to him. His worlds take on passionate form, and the trees and rocks around him seem to animate.
Charles Burchfield, Genesis, 1929
Burchfield struggled with the Methodist religion of his upbringing and his small town. His paintings are rife with anxiety and sacred symbolism. The patterns Burchfield creates within his work feel like the visual manifestation of sound or vibration or of something deep within the DNA of all living things. Patterns have been used in rituals in psychological, theatrical and religious ways as long as humans have been expressing themselves. Perhaps they are formed through our search for order or what we call religious connection to something unknown and larger than ourselves.
Charles Burchfield, The Four Seasons, 1949-1960, Watercolor on paper, 56″x 48,” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In The Four Seasons, as with much of his work, Burchfield creates a theatrical set, drawing pattern and lines with trees and foliage. He creates a proscenium that forms archways through which we travel. He notes being influenced by Leon Bakst, a Russian artist of the avante garde who worked as a scenic and costume designer for the famous Ballets Russes in Paris 1919-1929. I would argue the influence of theater and Bakst was much stronger on Burchfield than the much-cited parallel people find in the works of the Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840). However, perhaps Burchfield was a romantic as well as an expressionist. He was a genius of design and also known to be a depressive. I think he felt deeply and needed a way to touch a side of the world invisible to us.
Burchfield shares a deep vision with Leon Bakst, a Russian Jewish exile, Knut Hamsun, a recluse genius, Paul Bowles and his book “The Sheltering Sky” and Ingmar Bergman and his “Hour of the Wolf”. Burchfield draws from these great, emotive artists to create a powerful mix of artifice, drama and theatrical space. He is unparalleled in his ability to animate nature and present a complex picture of its psychology.
Kristen Scheile is a painter in Brooklyn, NY. www.kschiele.com