Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Southern Landscapes

Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949) is well represented at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art with the display of a rich permanent collection in a special area dedicated to his works. A new selection of rarely shown paintings has been assembled for the exhibition Will Henry Stevens: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the introductory piece at the entrance of the private room gives a resume of the show with its theme and colors. At first sight, a lush southern flavor exudes from the paintings lined up along the walls and a more detailed visit reveals the artist's different styles.

The short biography and the artist's statement posted on the wall allow the visitor to get acquainted with Stevens who was born in Indiana, lived ten years in Louisville, Kentucky and then moved permanently to New Orleans where he taught at the Newcomb College for twenty years. He painted exclusively the outdoors and is called a naturalist but what he looked for in nature was more than colors, shapes and landscapes. His  spiritual quest brought him to discover the Sung dynasty paintings and Eastern philosophies. In addition, in the late 20's, on his yearly trips to New York City, he was introduced to Kandinsky's work, a search for the spiritual through art. These influences are very clear in the paintings selected for the exhibition.
Mainly pastels, mixed media, few watercolors and oil on canvas, the figurative paintings evolve to abstract.

The Japanese influence is not subtle in some of them and brings a serene harmony to the compositions, especially two views of forests on each side of a video giving a glimpse of the artist's human dimension through memories of students or friends. In the same area, a well illustrated book about Wassily Kandinsky attempts to show the similarities between the works from the European master and Stevens's owns.
Influenced by Kandinsky and others, Stevens also admired Paul Klee and it  becomes a game to figure out the style and flavors, figurative, cubist, expressionist even surrealistic, found in different paintings. The lack of dates on the works is somewhat of a drawback if one is interested in following the artist's career. But ultimately, what makes Stevens so unique are his colors and his commitment to nature. He saw curves, fluid shapes and one seldom finds straight lines or geometric figures in the works.  After learning how to grind and mix his own pigments, he developed a special technique to avoid fading and smudges. His oranges, yellows, blues with subtle variations or intense, dark, vegetal greens, his earthy, generous, warm browns feel like he is sampling nature directly on his palette to create his musical landscapes.

The result of his search for spirituality is a non objective rendition of  forests, water, fishes, the Mississippi river or the sea in paintings offering the essence of the natural world. Kandinsky followed an intellectual journey, Stevens's path is through aesthetics. His communion with nature is expressed with soft shapes and dense colors in compositions bathing in southern luxuriance. Saturated with organic colors the works are almost tactile and one can feel the humidity, the heat.

A Southern master to rediscover, surprising in his variations on one theme: nature.

photographs by the author

Untitled, n.d., Will Henry Stevens
Untitled, n.d., Will Henry Stevens
Untitled, n.d., Will Henry Stevens
View of the exhibition

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