Finally, a time for Grandma

by Robert L. Pincus | Jul 23, 2001
Finally, a time for Grandma The curse of celebrity, as it turns out, wasn`t permanent for Norman Rockwell. Once dismissed by curators and critics alike, he was the subject of a serious exhibition last year. Putting aside the show`s exaggerated claims for his greatness, it introduced him to a new generation of viewers.

Now comes a big nationally circulating exhibition, to the one and same venue, for the only artist who was as popular as Rockwell in the Truman and Eisenhower years: Anna Mary Robertson Moses. Her images may have been on even more greeting cards and calendars than his. And like him, she became a persona non grata in art circles; popularity itself was a badge of disrepute in the decade dominated by the abstract expressionists.

The artist`s many fans and admirers embraced her as Grandma, of course. She became America`s Grandma, too - a rural widow who found time to paint in her 70s and produced a flood of images celebrating country life and American history.

Moses was a folk artist, meaning she was self-taught, and the media couldn`t seem to get enough of her folksy persona and art. Mademoiselle, displaying wit, named her Young Woman of the Year in 1948; her paintings appeared in prominent cereal and lipstick ads (peddling "primitive red"); and a New Yorker cartoon riffed on her legendary output.

She produced a remarkable 1,500 paintings, give or take a few, from the time she started painting in earnest in 1935 (she was 75 then) until her death in 1961. Eighty of them, spanning her painting years, are in "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century."

Jane Kallir, who has been around Moses` paintings all her life, is the curator; it was her grandfather, the late Otto Kallir, who launched Moses` career at his New York Galerie St. Etienne in 1940. Art Services International, a nonprofit educational organization, is circulating the show to six museums. Currently at the San Diego Museum of Art, it will move Sept. 15 to the Orlando Museum in Orlando, Fla., and then on to the Huntsville Museum of Art in Huntsville, Ala., in December; the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., in February 2002; the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, in May; and the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Ore., in August.

Winnowing the selections to fewer than 6 percent of her work announces we will get the best of Moses. This is pretty much true, too.

Her largest gift gets its due here: She could orchestrate the space of a wide landscape beautifully. By 1942, she had hit her stride in such celebrated pictures as "Black Horses" and "Cambridge Valley." Without any ability to create the vanishing perspective of the academically trained painter, she manages to evoke the grandeur of soft hills reaching into the distance.

Moses, who liked to make maps in her youth, charts the land as a group of patches and lines, dotted by houses and barns. In "Dark Horses," a pair of them, mostly black, anchor the foreground. In "Cambridge Valley," it`s a boy and girl, admiring the scene, which we also take in.

Consistently, Moses searched for a way to bring the viewer into the picture. The curve of the road in the alluring "Spring in Evening" (1947) carries the eye into and through the landscape.

It`s good to recall novelist D.H. Lawrence`s famous dictum when it comes to Moses and her paintings. "Trust the tale and not the teller," he wrote.

Here`s what she said about her paintings, in a 1946 interview: "I think real hard till I think of something pretty."

"Pretty" is a term that can apply to some of her lesser efforts, like "Early Springtime on the Farm" (1945), which is a pleasant slice of rural life but little more. In so many paintings, though, she reached higher. The passion for her upstate New York landscape has an epic feeling to it. You sense its light, its colors and its terrain, all subordinated to intricate pictorial design.

Moses was pretty clumsy at rendering figures, but she was so good at arranging them, weaving them into a scene, that a picture such as "Sugaring Off" (1943) creates pictorial magic with its depiction of sap-gathering and the making of maple syrup. People, cows, horses and buildings form a bright tapestry against the snow-covered landscape. Trees and plants, in pale gray, are a secondary, delicate pattern.

Popular Currier & Ives prints were a source, but you have to conclude that she had absorbed the example of Pieter Brueghel the Elder along the way. She is his folk equivalent in her storytelling pictures.

Some of the stories that mattered to her were historical rather than autobiographical. But history was personal to Moses. She stuck to the history of her native Washington County and the surrounding area. She harks back to the American Revolution by depicting the conflict that occurred near her birthplace, in the complex, convincing "The Battle of Bennington" (1953), and rendering a local landmark, the Checkered House, that was headquarters for Gen. Baum, during the War of Independence.

Now that Moses` own celebrity status and the art world hostility to her fame are both history, assessing her oeuvre becomes more straightforward. She was prone to repetition, as one astute critic of her work pointed out, but pictorial invention and passion for place are palpable in her best paintings.

Rockwell and Moses have equal status as icons in the history of 20th century American pop culture, but Moses turns out to be the more luminous artist.

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert L. Pincus

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