Review: William Wendt at Laguna Art Museum

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When William Wendt painted the California landscape in the first half of the 20th century, he did so the way a master cabinetmaker might craft a sideboard or a chest of drawers. Every brush stroke is flawlessly considered, every form crisp and well-honed. Every color is selected and composed with utmost care. The sense that landscape elements have been edited out as extraneous is as acute as it is with those necessarily included.

The result, more often than not, is a handmade thing of beauty -- a painted object that radiates skill and attentive handling. (A young Wendt had in fact apprenticed in a Chicago cabinetmaker’s shop.) Those attributes do not sound exciting for a modern work of art, and indeed they aren’t. But excitement, with its intimation of dramatic exploratory adventure and artistic revolution, is not what Wendt was after in images of eucalyptus groves, sun-splashed pastures and wind-swept sand dunes. Not by a long shot.


Instead, Wendt wanted his paintings to embody spirituality. The artist seems to have reasoned that, if nature is God’s handicraft, then art is man’s. The two needed to be in sync.

That’s the lesson in the handsome, well-considered retrospective that winds up its run at the Laguna Art Museum on Feb. 8. The show pointedly plays down the nostalgia angle — that Wendt’s unpopulated landscapes were recording rapidly disappearing, natural West Coast vistas. A tree-hugger view has great popular appeal, but it has also obscured a clearer understanding of his art.

Wendt’s work was sophisticated, not wistful. In the face of the rapidly industrializing modern world, an almost Arts and Crafts-type commitment ...

... to nature and handicraft holds sway.

Paintings that looked at nature were obliged to be in concordance with the spiritual mystery that lies within. Wendt’s paintings picture landscapes, but they are also at pains to picture the labor that went into making them, brush stroke by careful brush stroke. In revealing their own aesthetic mastery, they would consecrate humanity.

Sometimes he made obvious, if nondenominational religious references, as in a bucolic 1918 scene of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Sometimes veiled symbolism is evident, as in a suggestive “tree of life” at the center of 1917’s “The Mantle of Spring.”

Mostly, though, nature is conveyed as an evocative force of regeneration. Wendt’s was a conservative rather than progressive take on things.

Still, the spiritual conviction of his approach is one that was shared by many artists at the start of the last century — and not just in California. It fueled the birth of European abstraction, the most radical innovation in painting’s history.

Secular spirituality was the engine for Kazimir Malevich in Russia, Hilma af Klint in Sweden and Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter working in Paris — all of whom pioneered modern abstract art. In fact Wendt, who emigrated in 1880 from Germany to the United States (Chicago) — alone, at the tender age of 15 — was born just a year before Wassily Kandinsky, another central figure in pure abstraction’s ascendancy.

The distance between a Wendt vista of the rolling hills that flank L.A.’s Cahuenga Pass and an abstract Kandinsky “Improvisation,” with its rhythmic harmonies of line, shape and intense color, is obviously vast. But the Russian’s spiritual embrace of Theosophy as an engine for his art is not so different from the German’s interest in the theological mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg.

Both are artists of the modern era. But Kandinsky is a “capital M” Modernist, while Wendt is not.

He’s also not an Impressionist. Wendt did paint outdoors; but the broken brushwork, vaporous color, urban tumult and other attributes of the French movement have next to nothing to do with his work.

Take 1925’s “Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought,” an unusually imposing, 5-foot-wide painting, which is among Wendt’s best. The style is linear and crisp. The undulations of the lowland hills, the craggy mountain peak and even the clouds, which reverse the ground’s curvature, act almost like a wide-angle lens: The scene looks more expansive than it already is.

In the brilliant light of day, a peak-roofed farmhouse nestled beneath the jagged, sheltering mountain repeats the crag’s upward thrust, as if the little man-made structure were a dynamic human metaphor for the image of struggle and grandeur implied in nature’s impressive peak. Wendt’s particular spiritual narrative couldn’t be more different from, say, Paul Cézanne’s in painting Mont Ste.-Victoire; but the animating force is not dissimilar.

Wendt’s frequent designation as a California Impressionist does, however, imply the essential conservatism of his work. The French style emerged with force in the 1870s; Wendt moved to Southern California — first L.A. and later rural Laguna Beach — more than 30 years later, in 1906, and his mature work evolved after that. (He died in 1946.) Settling first into a house east of downtown and just north of Lincoln Heights, he arrived at the Pacific Coast a scant 13 weeks before Cézanne, the great French Post-Impressionist, died in Provence.

Today Wendt is a painter few know. Although he was a major cultural figure during his lifetime, even basic biographical material has been in short supply. Happily, the show’s excellent catalog fills in a lot of those blanks.

But his relative obscurity is a testament to how far his star has fallen in the larger constellation of 20th century art. Partly it’s because he was committed to landscape painting, which is typically seen as a 19th century subject. And partly it’s because he worked in Southern California, which is caricatured as a place without history.

Yet the 61 paintings in the Laguna retrospective, smartly organized by guest curator Will South, show Wendt to be the equal of — or better than — any number of far more widely known East Coast painters of his time. I’d rather look at a Wendt than just about anything by, say, George Luks, Everett Shinn or Ernest Lawson, whose “Ashcan paintings” are mostly warmed-over journalistic pastiches of European precedents, noteworthy almost exclusively for their urban American subject matter.

By contrast, Wendt is a minor master. This satisfying exhibition tells his story well.

— Christopher Knight

Top image: ‘Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought,’ 1925. Oil on canvas. 50 1/2 x 60 1/16 inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Collection. Second image: ‘Old Coast Road,’ 1916. Oil on canvas. 30 x 37 inches. Private Collection. Third image: ‘Sycamores Entangled,’ 1923. Oil on canvas. 32 x 36 inches. Collection of Joseph L. Moure. Fourth image: ‘Seaside Cottages,’ 1930. Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches. Private Collection.