Monday, August 30

Charles M. Russell-Western Art At Its Best

Desert Flow
Acrylic on Canvas
16 x 20 in/41 x 51 cm
Copyright 2008
This summer has gone by too fast. I was reminded of that over the weekend.

Way back at the beginning of June, there was an exhibit that just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH), and I was interested in seeing it. It was The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Paintings and Sculpture.

As I recall, all the exhibits at MFAH usually last for months and months, and you seem to have all the time in the world to plan your visit. Well, the Russell exhibit closed over the weekend. I thought it would last at least until October. Has this happened to anyone else?

Luckily, I just happened to read about its impending close, and I got down there to see it the day before it did.

I’m not necessarily a big, big fan of Western art, but I do appreciate its unique place in American art. For those in other parts of the world, this is art depicting the “settling” of the American West in the 19th century, a time of frontier discovery and conflict as the American population moved west into Native American territories. It depicts cowboys, “Indians,” cattle, horses, and beautiful landscapes among other things.

Charles Russell is regarded as one of the masters of this genre, the other being Frederic Remington. The MFAH happens to have one of the best collections of Remington paintings, and it was here that I first saw Western art.

Anyway, this exhibit was put together by the Denver Art Museum in Colorado along with the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma where much of Russell’s work resides. There is a nice mix of his early and later paintings, he died in 1926, along with about a half-dozen sculptures.

Russell actually worked as a real cowboy in the US state of Montana, so he paints from experience. I like his later work better. He was self-taught, and you can see the growth and refinement in his brushwork and color. One card next to a painting explained that his style matured after he took an extended visit to art galleries and museums in New York City in the late 1890s.

His paintings are pure realism especially those of the cowboys at work. One technique he used was to paint what I call stop-motion. This is used in a good manyof his paintings and, for example, it shows scenes where horse and rider are in mid-fall to the ground with dust billowing or gunshots just fired with muzzles blazing. It’s a technique that wouldn’t work today, but back then I’m guessing he used it to show the excitement and perils of the place and time.

The piece de resistance of the whole show is Russell’s magnificent painting, When The Land Belonged To God. It shows thousands upon thousands of buffalo moving over hill and valley in an endless stream toward the viewer with the focal point being a handful coming over a ridge at daybreak. It’s described in terms of a world masterpiece, and one art critic said, “a painting you must see before you die.”

Well, I’m glad I got to see it before then and before the exhibit closed.

Until next blog…

No comments:

Post a Comment