Charles Burchfield and Bruno Schulz

“Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom. The rust-colored earth was covered with a threadbare, meager tablecloth of snow full of holes There was not enough of it for some of the roofs and so they stood there, black and brown, shingle and thatch, arks containing the sooty expanses of attics—coal black cathedrals bristling with ribs of rafters, beams, and spars—the dark lungs of winter winds. Each dawn revealed new chimney stacks and chimney pots which had emerged during the hours of darkness, blown up by the night winds: the black pipes of a devil’s organ. The chimney sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of the trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch only to fly away at dawn in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flakes of dirt undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent cawing the musty yellow streaks of light. The days hardened with cold and boredom like last years loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with lazy indifference.”
Bruno Schulz, Street of Crocodiles
Some aspects of Burchfield's work remind me of outsider art, some remind me of visual aberrations, specifically, scintillating scotoma, which I've experienced. This is a "visual migraine" in which a vibrating zig-zagged circle of light superimposes the field of vision for a few minutes.
“Afterward the gardens filled the air with enormous sighs and grew their leaves hastily, doing overtime by day and by night. All flags hung down heavy and darkened, helplessly pouring out the last streaks of color into the dense aura. Sometimes at the opening of a street someone turned to the sky half a face, like a dark cutout with one frightened and shining eye, and listened to the rumble of space, to the electric silence of the passing clouds while the air was cut by the flight of trembling, pointed, arrow-sharp black-and-white swallows.” Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
“Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds.”
Charles Burchfield

I recently discovered the painter Charles Burchfield (April 9, 1893 - January 10, 1967). His work is singular though it evinces references to many — Van Gogh, the Fauves, Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hart Benton, Caspar David Friedrich. In his anomalous American Regionalist middle period in the 1920s and 30s, he was even like an Edward Hopper with more rain. But mostly Burchfield immersed himself in landscapes— and painted hundreds of them in watercolor sometimes so saturated it resembles oil.

Burchfield painted the everyday in an extraordinary way. The mundane landscapes and streetscapes of the Ohio and upstate New York towns where he lived are transformed into pulsing hallucinatory visions.  A cryptic interpreter of nature, Burchfield created landscapes sometimes dark and brooding, other times manically aflame, often palpably dense with psychological weight. Common things become strange, and the invisible is brought into focus. Flowers and stars give off acidic halos, and the sound of cicadas or power emanating from telegraph wires is transcribed as thickets of shuddering line. It is anxiety made manifest. Evidently Burchfield never was fully at ease and suffered from anxiety and depression. As a teenager, he endured nervous exhaustion and later, astounding bouts of mania-- producing half his entire output of painting in the years 1915-1917 alone. His heightened psychological response and susceptibility is plainly visible and, I believe, informs his whole aesthetic. 

Interestingly, Burchfield was assigned to the camouflage unit during the First World War. At the time the Army was practicing a particular camouflage variant called "dazzle" where large Cubistic shards and stripes of light and dark would obscure the outlines of the structures being covered. Burchfield, I am sure, found a particularly sympathetic outlet for his nervous striations in this unit.

Dazzle camouflage, 1918
About the same time I came across Burchfield I rediscovered Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892 – November 19, 1942), the Polish writer and graphic artist. I realized there were sympathetic ties between Schulz's intense mesmerizing verbal cascades and Burchfields hectic visions. Both artists' worlds are animate, mystical and heavily psychological. Both kept somewhat insular lives, Burchfield painting his immediate surroundings in Ohio and upstate New York, Schulz, describing familiar sites in Drohobych, the town he lived in his entire life. Each artist drew from a store of personal mythologies and preoccupations, and seemed to be able to train his eye on that which others overlooked or could not see.


Judith Joseph said...

I just came across your blog while researching Bruno Schulz. I am a big fan of Burchfield and I think your comparison of the two artists is quite interesting. They certainly share a manic emotional intensity. I was unfamiliar with the terminology and description of the scintillating scotoma, which I have also experienced as a result of optical migraines. Thank you for this excellent analysis.

angvou said...

Thank you so much Judith!


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