When asked to write about a favorite painting at the art museum, I saw it as an invitation to reestablish my emotional connection to the art I see. Recently, I find it hard to have a gut reaction to works that I spend time in front of. This is especially true if I sense that there is much for me to learn from certain works. My approach is all-wrong. I don’t wait for paintings to grab me anymore; I accost them and analyze their equations. So in addition to searching for the perfect piece to write about, I also went to find my innocent eye. I went through the museum carefully over a few hours and realized that I was looking for something to relate to. We view artwork personally, and the most intimate connections happen between viewers and paintings that share something. The best of these experiences are inscrutable like the feeling you get when you see a hot air balloon, smell fabric softener from the past, or witness an accident.
When I was 17 years old, I had my first taste of what has become my passion for the last 13 years. It took one art class as a senior in high school to convince me. I wanted to be an artist. With this secret growing inside me, I went to the art museum with my parents. It was late March or early April and Cincinnati was moving from winter into spring in messy fashion as usual. I grew up in Maineville Ohio on acres of virgin forest rimmed by cornfields. Spring meant the sound of mud sucking at my feet and as a teenager, it was an itchy feeling and the return of sweat, smells, and blooming plants. The Little Miami River near us would swell overnight until it would be ruddy and mad in the morning.
Last week at the museum, the same painting that held me over a decade ago took me in again. John Twachtman’s painting “Springtime” is one of the finest in the wonderful Cincinnati wing at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Twachtman (1853-1902) was an artist searching for a style with a huge talent at his disposal. He was never satisfied with painting one way for very long. The artist painted “Springtime” while traveling in France. Twachtman painted it when he was my age. I am thirty and Twachtman was thirty-one when he painted Springtime. This painting is a triumph of atmosphere achieved through the transubstantiation of paint into vapor.
Paint is clearly paint in this work, but is also so clearly a wet humming spring morning. Strange that these are dependent on one another. The effect is so convincing as to seem inevitable, as if oil paint is really just spring and mud and fog anyway, and any artist trying to create anything else with it is foolish. The nameable elements in the scene: river, riverbank, trees, house, and distant tree line live as feelings in the painting. They are trapped in the painter’s world of perpetual memory. Twachtman’s world is sensate. The air almost overcomes detail; the ground is so saturated as to be not stable. The sky threatens to be one with the earth. We the viewers cling to the one hard edge in the painting. Appropriately, this mark describes the foreground riverbank. We must balance on this unstable edge of land while we are assaulted with all the uncomfortable truths about spring. Things are born in the spring and things that die fill the air with their smell. I was in the birth period of many things in my life, and the Twachtman filled me with a bittersweet recognition.
It is wonderful that Twachtman suspends our disbelief through such a restrained technical approach. There is very little detail in this painting. Three spatial punctuation marks move vertically through the painting to separate the shifting fields of foggy land and air. The first is the high contrast meeting of water and land that is in the extreme foreground of the picture. In the spirit of the tonalist/Asian approach Twachtman utilized at this time, this moment wears dark color and a mark that is full of calligraphic suggestion and powerful urgency. The momentum of this mark ignites the feeling of restlessness that shudders through the whole painting. The next spatial divide happens at the bend in the river where an especially dark tree makes a graphic statement against the background. This tree is like a finger in the dike that keeps the middle ground land mass on the left from crashing into the shining and swelling river. The final spatial marker is lifted straight from a Japanese print as a single brushstroke trunk of a tree grows against the sky and terminates in an anvil shaped top that is as light as a feather. Two more receding trees vertically dissipate into the haze. Twachtman’s various kinetic parts of the painting dissolve at varying rates throughout the composition. This constant movement combined with the overall sweeping scrubbing over the surface is the technical equation for Twachtman’s “Springtime”. Even after examining the formal devices in the work, I still register a physical reaction to this painting.