Friday, August 14, 2020

Q&A with Amanda C. Burdan

Amanda C. Burdan is the author of the new book America's Impressionism: Echoes of a Revolution. She is a curator at the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, which will be presenting a companion exhibition of American Impressionist art next year.

Q: You write, "American Impressionism is one of the most enduring — yet complex and even at times contradictory — styles of art ever produced in this country." Why do you think that is?

A: American Impressionism is complex in that it goes well beyond the simple “translation” of a style from one country (France) to another (the United States).

As the style came to be “Americanized” not every aspect of the primary style was emulated. The focus on the seedier street life of the city worked well for some French Impressionists, but was not favored by American artists—or perhaps more correctly, by American patrons. There was, over the course of several decades, a tailoring of the style to the tastes of U.S. audiences.

Impressionism persisted as a leading style of artists long after it receded in France, becoming an early phase in the careers of the American modernists of the later 20th century. I like to say that the style lingered in the U.S., which then pair it contextually with later historical events—World War I, for example.

One of the features that is shared with American and French Impressionism is the focus on capturing a scene or portrait in the moment. This often means a lack of finish or polish to a work in favor of showcasing an unguarded moment and the dazzling effects of light captured on the spot.

Artists around the world began to reject the long-standing traditions of art that relied so heavily on the precise imitation of the visual world. Painstaking study in a rigorous academic system, which passed along the knowledge of illusionism, began to be discarded by art students.

The “here and now” was of increasing interest to artists in the late 19th century, and that’s the “revolution” within the title of the exhibition and its catalogue. But the “here and now” of Paris in 1874 was different than the “here and now” of Cos Cob, Connecticut, in 1894 or San Francisco, California, in 1915. It’s the artistic reverberations of the style that make Impressionism a global phenomenon.

Sometimes those reverberations appear to be at odds with the original spirit of the style as it emerged in France.

For example, U.S. artists often taught the style of Impressionism to classes at art colonies and summer schools. Even though the style is rooted in the rebellion against the academic system, which encouraged students to imitate the work of their teachers.

It’s fair to say that American Impressionism was more homogenized than the original French group, who each had their own idiosyncratic style, very recognizable and individual. In the U.S., individuality was much more subtle.

Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Impressionism in general, and American Impressionism in particular?

A: One of the common perceptions about Impressionism is that it was only a French style—countries around the world actually have their own versions of the style.

It’s not surprising then that one of the major misconceptions about American Impressionism is that it was done simply in imitation of French Impressionism. Seen in that way, as derivative work, the style loses value, particularly in the American art world of the later 20th century that rewarded artistic innovation and individuality. This is a challenge that all global Impressionisms face.

Certainly French Impressionism played a major role in the formation of American Impressionism as the French practitioners were the ones to break with academic traditions and bring the style to the public.

In the U.S., other factors, including the nationalist ties to landscape painting, the experimentation of artists known as Tonalists, and the international training considered so critical to an artist’s resumé all played a role in molding how Impressionism would grow in the U.S.

Even within French Impressionism there are roots of influence and inspiration that informed the mainstream idea of Impressionism, such as Japanese prints and the rise of photography. To research the development of Impressionism in the United States is to learn the deeper contextual history that shaped the final form of the style.

Q: How popular was Impressionist art in the United States during the time these artists were at work?

A: One of the aspects of Impressionism in the U.S. that is so curious is that the style was harshly criticized and ridiculed when first introduced, but grew steadily in popularity long after French Impressionism had been replaced by even more avant-garde work in its home country.

It took some time for American audiences and artists to warm up to the style—partly, I’m sure, out of its disregard for tradition.

The fine arts in the United States had long been criticized as being a field with no tradition. This is what drove art students to Europe, where tradition abounded and different nations competed on an international stage for cultural primacy.

After generations of artists attempted to fill the blank slate of artistic tradition in the U.S. with the traditions of other countries, artists, patrons, and burgeoning arts institutions were wary of a style that represented the rejection of all of that.

The popularity of French, and then American, Impressionism grew in fitful ways.

New American wealth of the gilded age certainly played a role in terms of growing art collections. As a matter of economics, American collectors often gravitated toward the upstart style, reflective of modernity to be sure, but also less expensive than Old Master works.

Monet, and others of the French style, benefited from this because part of their revolution in the art world was to upend the traditions of art patronage by exhibiting and selling in commercial galleries.

Once Impressionism became “Americanized” by reflecting subjects familiar to the patrons and art audiences in this country, the “foreign-ness” of the style receded, which served to increase its popularity.

The first public exhibition of French Impressionism in the United States happened in New York in 1886, when a leading Parisian art dealer sent a group of paintings rich in French Impressionism to be displayed in New York.

By 1893, at the Chicago World’s Fair—which included many American Impressionist paintings and murals—the U.S. demonstrated a facility for artistic spectacle to match that of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889.

It was in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that American Impressionism became the dominant style of painting presented by the nation. By that time, enclaves of Impressionist artists had popped up around the country in colonies—all over New England, on the coast of California, and in many regions in between.

Q: How did you choose the essays to include in the book?

A: The essays proceeded naturally from the themes of the exhibition. Since the goal was to view the work of American Impressionists more broadly and more inclusively, essays about different regions of the country made sense.

The exhibition focuses on the American Southwest and California as two fertile locales for American Impressionism.

William Keyse Rudolph, of the San Antonio Museum of Art at the time he wrote his essay, is deeply knowledgeable about Texas Impressionists and Scott Shields, of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, is a leading scholar on California Impressionists.

Their combined expertise helped to put Western variations of Impressionism in the context of, and on more equal terms with, the more mainstream East Coast artists.

I also wanted to focus attention on the timeline of Impressionism in the United States—the late start and long life of the movement in this country.

The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis was already signed on as a partner in the exhibition and their director Kevin Sharp expressed his interest in exploring the longevity of American Impressionism.

Emily Burns, a professor at Auburn University, was already working on the concept of cultural belatedness and American culture in France and so I asked her if she might apply that thinking to the story of American Impressionism and see what might come of looking through that lens.

I knew I wanted to write about the perfect storm that arose in American art to raise Impressionism to the heights it found in this country.

I had been thinking about that for several years and trying out different ideas in lectures and getting good and helpful feedback. I drew on a number of those ideas for my essay on the “preconditions” of American Impressionism.

While I was working on the early planning of the exhibition, Ross King published Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, which helped to solidify my understanding that Monet had a specific and singular identity for Americans.

He represented the world of Impressionism and, after removing himself to Giverny, the focused study that elongated Impressionism into the 20th century. I asked Ross if he would write something about the American interaction—particularly the patronage and popularity—with Monet.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on three essays for other projects.

I’ve written an essay for the exhibition catalogue for Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War, organized by the Vilcek Foundation, about the artist’s work for the military in making weather charts during World War II and his work for Fortune magazine covering the atomic bomb tests in the Bikini atoll. The publication, out next year, is by Merrell.

I’m contributing an essay about artist May Alcott Nieriker, Louisa May Alcott’s youngest sister, to a volume devoted to Nieriker’s unsung career, published by Routledge.

I’m also working on a piece about the artist Doris Emrick Lee for an anthology called Unforgettable, edited by Charles Eldredge, about fantastic historical American artists whose talents have been hidden from mainstream view for too long.

My next major exhibition will be Jamie Wyeth: Unsettled, with a catalogue published by Skira Rizzoli. The exhibition opens at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in October of 2022 and will travel internationally in 2023.

The theme of the exhibition is the darker, anxious, and uneasy works that Jamie Wyeth has produced throughout his long career. I will examine a number of his works thematically trying to divine what it is that makes them so haunting.

I’m gathering a group of authors, who will be able to shed light on their own artistic practice in other fields such as filmmaking and music, including how they use their particular media to create an unsettling mood.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When the blue lines for this book arrived, I printed them out and took them home with me to work on over the weekend. I didn’t realize at the time that it would be months before I would be able to return to my office, my research notes, and my personal library again.

Even as Italy was shut down in the early phases of the global pandemic, our printer Verona Libri was miraculously able to go to press on schedule.

In the publication’s acknowledgments I discuss art historian William Gerdts, calling him “the architect of American Impressionism,” for his own pioneering research on the topic as well as the generations of scholars he directed.

His work and the work of his students form the basis of this study, which would not have been possible without their persistence in foregrounding a style that was not well-regarded at the time.

In mid-April, Bill passed away due to COVID 19. It feels daunting to author the first work on American Impressionism published in a world without Bill Gerdts. This catalogue is dedicated to his memory.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

No comments:

Post a Comment