There have been moments in history when a group of creative visionaries put their hometown on the cultural map. More commonly, provincial art styles beloved by the locals never make the big time, and for good reason. So-called “California Impressionism” is one of those styles, a timidly conservative attempt to capture the look of a coastal Shangri-La using techniques pioneered by artists in France more than a generation earlier.
Granted the continuing public popularity of these paintings, a critic groans at the prospect of yet another show devoted to uninspired images of breezy shores, rugged mountains and dreamily idle women. The “masters” of this genre hardly seem worth differentiating from each other, and they scarcely suffer from underexposure.
So why is the Laguna Art Museum bringing us “California Light: 1900-1930,” an array of 75 works by nine of these artists?
Well, initially it seemed as if the exhibit (on view through Jan. 6) was going to offer a fresh, broadly sociological look at the connection between the art and the sun-dazzled land that was rapidly filling up with newcomers lured by tourist brochures. Even ho-hum art can be wonderfully informative about the habits and beliefs of people living at a particular time.
The catalogue essays by 10 authors with expertise in a variety of fields do cover a good deal of ground, from the phenomenon of migration to Southern California to the way certain artists glorified a vision of passive femininity. Yet guest curator Patricia Trenton seems to be bringing us the same old show, livened up with a few informational tidbits about the unique whiteness of California light.
Strolling through the exhibit, you don’t feel you are in the midst of a revisionist effort, or even a concerted effort to relate art to life. Conventional documentation of the careers of the artists--most of whom also worked abroad and back East--tends to cloud the issue of how the art responded to the social and cultural climate of California. There are no contemporary photographs to give a sense of context, no relevant wall-text discussions of, say, the emphasis on light and color in what passed for critical writing on art in Southern California or the amount of leisure time enjoyed by upper-class women of the period.
The paintings--by Franz Bischoff, Maurice Braun, Alson Clark, Joseph Kleitsch, Edgar Payne, Granville Redmond, Guy Rose, Donna Schuster and William Wendt--are grouped for the most part by artist. A separate gallery is set aside for works painted in Europe by Rose, Clark and Payne, presumably to indicate the different kinds of light they found in Madrid, Paris, Switzerland and Giverny, where aging Impressionist Claude Monet held court.
Although California Impressionism marked the last hurrah of plein-air painting--done out-of-doors to capture instantaneous effects at the source--the Californians went their own independent ways, frequently distorting or modifying the working habits and theories of their French artistic forebears.
Edgar Payne, for example, was really an academic painter in Impressionist’s clothing. He stayed indoors to paint detailed models of fishing boats in Impressionist-style broken brushwork, and carefully recomposed his outdoor sketches of mountains into idealized visions rather than trying to capture the fleeting quality of optical sensations.
Actually, quite a few of the works on view are scenes of light held at bay by parasols and porticoes or filtered into indoor settings. Based on the evidence in these canvases, the only people who took shelter under a roof in California were women. With a few exceptions--such as Kleitsch’s portrait of self-possessed “Miss Ketchum"--these lasses were a droopy lot, given to vague reveries in pretty gowns amid the tasteful furnishings of a prosperous home.
Frequently, as in Clark’s “Reflections"--a semi-nude image of a young thing staring smugly at her manicure--the woman poses near a mirror but doesn’t look into it. The mirror, like the woman, is really there for the spectator’s pleasure in sensual accouterments.
As Bram Dijkstra, professor of American literature and cultural history at UC San Diego, discusses at length in a catalogue essay, in turn-of-the-century painting, a woman was “a clever optical illusion . . . lit only by the reflected light of the masculine sun . . . a mere echo of creativity.”
Such insights and turns of phrase rescue the exhibit from the doldrums; if only the same could be said of the paintings themselves.