Monday, February 9, 2009

The Landscape Paintings of William Wendt

I mentioned (yesterday) an embarrassment of riches from the weekend. One of them was the exhibition of the artist William Wendt at the Laguna Art Museum--regrettably, now closed. Not the museum, the show. If it were not, I'd be encouraging all those in the area not to miss it. Too bad, I apologize for the tardy notice about this wonderful show.

William Wendt was a leader of the Southern California "school" of plein air painters who settled in Laguna Beach at the beginning of the 20th century. "Plein air" is of course the kind of painting that is done en plein air--out in the open, confronting the natural environment with canvas, easel, brush and palette knife and tubes of paint, and a sense of reverence that today there are many people struggling to recover. Wendt is a landscape painter, of the kind that was glibly marginalized in the latter part of the 20th century by critics and theorists--and indeed by artists--who sneered at the representational and the figurative in art and who had the obtuse intellectual audacity to declare painting itself "dead." Remember them? If you don't, they're best forgotten anyway.

The Laguna Art Museum show assembled a surprising number of Wendt paintings from various periods of his work. To walk through the exhibition was an experience of sheer, warm, unadulterated pleasure. There was, first, everywhere, the evidence of a human hand that had acquired extroardinary skill in the art of applying paint to canvas--a hand that was clearly guided not only by the eye, but by the mind and heart. The sensuous quality of his surfaces, the feel of the brush and knife, the flow of line and body of color put us, as viewers, in direct touch with the human being who stood in awe before these landscapes and recreated them with loving care. His paintings specifically reject the transcendant grandeur of an Albert Bierstadt or a Thomas Hill. Instead, they are intimate, personal, deeply felt--a way of exploring the inner life through the medium of paint.

The little cottage we were fortunate to acquire in Laguna Beach--in the days when they were still moderately affordable!--is located in a nest of streets that bear the name of several of those original plein air painters: Wendt Terrace is just above us, Cuprien (after Frank Cuprien) to the south, and (William A.) Griffith just a couple of blocks north. Long associated with the world of cutting edge contemporary art, we started to collect the work of amateur plein air painters for the cottage a number of years ago, whenever we could find pictures going cheap at garage sales and swap meets. We came to love the respect for nature that went into their creation, and the desire to capture it on canvas or on board. Had we started collecting a decade earlier, we could probably have afforded to buy the work of artists like Wendt and Cuprien while they were still out of fashion, regarded as somewhat quaint left-overs from the 19th century at a time when Modernism was still marching bravely forward toward the 21st.

I have a rather off-beat theory about these artists and their work. It is that, far from being the sideshow to which they were so long relegated, the artists who were drawn to California--many of them from Europe--were in fact the genuine precursors of the Light/Space artists who were the first to attract international attention to the area in the early 1960s. Those pioneer painters, I believe, were attracted precisely by the environmental qualities of light and space that were later adopted, instead of paint, as literal media in themelves, by artists working with resin, glass or neon, or using space itself to investigate how the eye and the mind co-operate in the act of perception. It is surely also the interplay of light and space, though explored in the traditional medium of oil paint, that engages us in the paintings of a William Wendt.

Today, as we survey the damage visited on Nature by our extravagent abuse of her generosity, we have begun to regret that we did not listen more closely to her needs, nor offer more respect to her awesome integrity. At such a moment in our history, it is refreshing to be invited back to a time when nature could still inspire acts of creation in the human soul, rather than acts of exploitation and destruction.

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