Art & Architecture

Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Memory is history recorded in our brain," is how Grandma Moses begins her autobiography, "My Life's History," published in 1948 at the apex of her fame. "Memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day."

Throughout her career, launched when she was 80 years old, Anna Mary Robertson Moses specialized in painting scenes of the past, her past, in which an idyllic America kept time to an agrarian calendar: farmhouses and barns tucked into rolling landscapes, people going about their daily chores or reveling in special celebrations, vignettes colored with the stalwart optimism of her Yankee worldview.

Discovered by the art world in 1940, she was famous for two decades. But by the 1950s, she was also being relegated to the world of the quaint and picturesque. "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century," a touring retrospective that opened last weekend at the San Diego Museum of Art, promises a rediscovery, if not indeed a rehabilitation, of this icon.

About 80 works, including several early embroidered pictures, have been drawn together by curator Jane Kallir, in a show organized by the Alexandria, Va.-based Art Services International and sponsored by AARP, formerly known as the Assn. for the Advancement of Retired Persons. Kallir is co-director of New York's Galerie St. Etienne, which was founded by her grandfather Otto Kallir, who brought Grandma Moses to public attention and managed her career. Although the gallery still deals in Moses' works, all the works in the exhibition have been borrowed from private collections or museums.

Kallir is also a recognized expert on the artist, although that would not have been forecast in her youth. "My parents were among those who did not particularly like the works of Grandma Moses or take her seriously," admits Kallir, speaking by phone from Canada, where she was on a business trip. "We had a few in our home, but I never really looked at them."

It wasn't until she had studied art in college that she found herself in her grandfather's gallery "looking at the Grandma Moses paintings and seeing them for the first time. I was awe-struck by the presence of the landscape. These are scenes that come alive."

Born in upstate New York, Moses was the third of 10 children. According to her autobiography, she had a happy childhood in which chores were interspersed with the joys of playing house in the fields, cutting out dolls from paper scraps, and making a painting with leftover house paint. Then at 12, she writes, "I left home to earn my own living as what then was called a hired girl" on a farm.

At 27, Robertson married a hired man, Thomas Salmon Moses. They went to Virginia to find work, returning to New York 20 years later, in 1905, when they bought a dairy farm in Eagle Bridge.

Although the current retrospective includes a work from 1918--a woodland scene painted on a fireplace cover--Moses didn't really start painting until the late 1930s, when she was well into her 70s. Until then, she was preoccupied with household and farm work and raising her children--of the 10 she had, five survived childhood. As she said in a 1943 interview, "I had always wanted to paint, but I just didn't have time until I was 76."

In 1938, art collector Louis Caldor spotted her works on display in a Hoosick Falls, N.Y., drugstore, eventually buying up more than a dozen paintings and taking them back to New York with him. In 1940, he showed them to Otto Kallir, an Austrian emigre who had just opened the Galerie St. Etienne.

Although her grandfather had only a rudimentary knowledge of English, American culture and history, says Jane Kallir, "what he did have, which many people had who were interested in modern art between the two world wars, was a profound appreciation for artists who had not gone to art school." He found most American art provincial and derivative, and "was on the lookout for an authentic American expression."

For him, Grandma Moses fit the bill.

In October 1940, the Galerie St. Etienne held a one-woman Moses show titled "What a Farm Wife Painted." A month later, she was featured at a Thanksgiving festival mounted by Gimbel's department store. It put 50 of her works on display and invited her to speak. The 80-year-old artist traveled to the city, her first visit since 1917, and was on her way to becoming a major American celebrity.

She made the covers of Life and Time. She was interviewed on radio and television. Her works were reproduced on collector's plates, fabrics and millions of greeting cards. However, she chose to remain on the farm.

Hildegard Bachert, Otto Kallir's assistant at the time and now co-director of Galerie St. Etienne, saw Moses regularly and stayed with her while taking dictation for her autobiography. "Grandma was always looking for ways to supplement the family income," Bachert says. "When [her painting] started to be a business, that's when she decided, that's my career. She loved every minute of it, but she looked at it like work.

"You would see her painting early in the morning, just a cup of coffee next to her," Bachert recalls. "She was very small of stature but very strong. She was generous to a fault when she wanted to be, but very strict about spending money on anything frivolous."

So industrious was Moses that some 1,600 works are attributed to her, most of them paintings. She didn't do much in the way of sketching and tended to draw directly onto prepared Masonite board, her backing of choice. "Now the board is ready for the scene, whatever the mind may produce," Moses wrote of how she began a painting, "a landscape, an old bridge, a dream or a summer or winter scene, childhood memories, but always something pleasing and cheerful, I like bright colors and activity."

At first, Moses borrowed freely from popular art and illustration, including newspaper pictures and Currier & Ives prints. She compiled clippings for her reference--scenes and events, as well as household objects. Eventually, she gained the skill and confidence to create on her own. For example, the exhibition includes two paintings that depict the 1862 burning of a covered bridge in Troy, N.Y. One was done circa 1939, the other in 1943. The catalog shows the newspaper illustration she copies. In the earlier version, Moses closely follows the clipping. Later, she ventures a more complex composition, pulling back to imagine more of the riverbank and town, and adding more figures in the foreground.

As usual, her figures are crudely rendered, with generic features. "In her works the landscape seems to have more personality," notes D. Scott Atkinson, curator of American art at the San Diego museum. "People seem of secondary importance."

The public fell in love with the little old grandmother who painted, but the art world grew disenchanted. "The more famous Grandma Moses became, the more there was a sophisticated backlash against her," Kallir says. "Especially in the 1950s and through the 1960s, there was a real antipathy between high and low culture." People tend to take her for granted, says Kallir, partly because "most see her works in reproduction--a lot of this virtuosity just doesn't come across." Because the last major Moses exhibition toured in 1984, and because the passage of time might make it easier to see Moses' achievements, Lynn Rogerson of Art Services International thought it time to mount another. Kallir agreed, and took on the task of curating and writing the introduction to the exhibition catalog.

The current show has been divided chronologically--one gallery of early work, one of late work--interspersed with thematic groupings with titles such as "Work and Happiness" or "Place and Observation." The early and late works, Kallir says, show "how she became an artist and how her style develops, then evolves into something wholly original." Throughout, Kallir tried to balance a selection of signature works with lesser-known works.

In March the retrospective began its national tour at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., culling favorable reviews from all quarters. (It goes to five cities after San Diego.) "Moses' all-at-once compositions are indeed modern," wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker. "When you step up to a major Moses like the snow scene 'Sugaring Off' (1943) ... the picture's scale turns vast and intimate simultaneously. Beauty happens."

"None of us anticipated the impact this show would have," Kallir says. "For the first time I feel she's reaching the full spectrum of the art community and isn't being ghettoized--she's really touching all the bases."

The exhibition shows that as Moses grew older, her work became more impressionistic, the brush strokes looser and more expressive. She continued to use her imagination and rely on her memory. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan writes in a catalog essay that Moses "painted so that neither she nor the things and memories she valued would get lost."

For example, one of her favorite memories was of the seasonal tapping of maple trees for syrup. She revisited it again and again in paintings from "Sugaring Off" to "Vermont Sugar" in 1961, the final year of her life, and both are in the show. Indeed, she was painting until the end, when she was 101. "I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday," she wrote in her autobiography. "I look back on my life like a good day's work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be."

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"GRANDMA MOSES IN THE 21ST CENTURY," San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. Dates: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Prices: Adults, $8; seniors, young adults, students and military, $6; children 6-17, $3; children 5 and younger, free. Phone: (619) 232-7931.

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