Art Review: “Harold Weston: Freedom in Nature”, Shelburne Museum | Art review | Seven days

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  • Courtesy of the Harold Weston Foundation
  • “Sunset over Baxter Mountain”

Cobalt blue: This is the color Shelburne Museum painted his gallery for the current exhibition, “Harold Weston: Freedom in nature.” On the lower level of the Center for Art and Education Pizzagalli, the electrifying hue provides an appropriately charged backdrop for the energetic paintings of 20th century artist Weston. illustrate how color held him in bondage.

The exhibition combines two distinct works: Weston’s modernist, unfettered views of the Adirondacks of the early 1920s – in charcoal, pencil and oil on cardboard and canvas – and the more austere but richly colored abstractions of his “Stone Series” of 1968-72. Also on display are samples of letters to his wife, Faith Borton, written in narrow, oblique cursive, as well as journal entries and photographs.

Nicknamed “the Thoreau of the Adirondacks” for his spiritual embrace of nature – in his writing as much as in his painting – Weston sometimes lived in a one-room cabin near Saint Huberts, NY During daily hikes he sketched his mountains beloved and the accompanying atmospheres, completing the canvases later in his cabin studio.

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Harold Weston working with a can of paint - COURTESY OF THE HAROLD WESTON FOUNDATION

  • Courtesy of the Harold Weston Foundation
  • Harold Weston working with a can of paint

During the winter of 1921-22, Weston was there alone, a feat of endurance that would test the hardiest soul. He succeeded with a handicap: polio at 17 had left him paralyzed in one leg. But a condition that could cause many people to choose a cautious path had a different effect on Weston. As her granddaughter observes in a video on the museum’s website, “I call her personality ‘wild exuberance’.” Weston, she said, was fearless.

The same could be said of his artistic creation, which in some ways belied his formal education.

Born in 1894 in Merion, Pennsylvania to a wealthy family, Weston enjoyed early travels and schooling in Europe and later fine art classes at Harvard University. He was editor of the undergraduate humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon, to which he contributed a number of cartoons.

Did this experience influence his painting? May be. Weston defined mountain peaks, trees, and even clouds with hard outlines. Its Adirondacks are more curved than jagged. The foregrounds of his images are often mound-like, as if the earth is heaving with barely contained excitement. Clouds and trees are voluptuous, bulbous.

In particular, Weston’s “Birch Tree” painting seems to stand at the intersection of van Gogh’s vibrational impressions and modern graphic art. It’s almost, but not quite, cartoon.

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  • Courtesy of the Harold Weston Foundation
  • “Birch Tree”

Weston’s sky, meanwhile, has a life of its own. The colors of a sunset can separate into dramatic streaks and swirls, as in the vibrant “Sunset Over Baxter Mountain”. In “Sunrise From Marcy,” Weston captured the moment the rising sun kissed the edges of an entire purplish range; the sky above is covered in pastel eyebrows.

All the while in the Adirondacks, the self-sufficient mountain man/artist was also making his own picture frames, carving them out of pine and lightly gilding them. In 1922, a solo exhibition in New York of Weston’s Adirondack work was a popular and critical success.

Another influence on Weston’s work was his experiences during World War I. Unable to enlist, Weston volunteered with the YMCA in Baghdad. There he established an art club, encouraging soldiers to pass the time by drawing and painting.

While his exposure to the Middle Eastern desert undoubtedly influenced his artistic palette, Weston was also affected by the suffering he witnessed. The experience would later lead him to paint murals for a federal program during the Great Depression and intensify his political activism during World War II.

In 1943 Weston founded Food for Freedom, a coalition of American organizations that advocated for food aid to refugees. He lobbied First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with his ideas for an international food relief organization, efforts that led to the creation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

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  • Courtesy of the Harold Weston Foundation
  • “Sunset After Rain”

About a decade later, Weston’s organizational skills met his love of art: he started a group that petitioned the federal government to support artists’ efforts. Eventually, this group helped pass legislation to create the National Endowment for the Arts.

Weston never completely gave up painting during these years, but in the late 1960s he embarked on a new body of work – the “Stone Series”. The paintings are inspired by the calcite streaks of the Iberville Shale, source of the smooth, gray and white rocks found on the shores of Lake Champlain. A selection of these works, in gouache on toned paper, is at the back of the gallery.

If the landscapes of Weston’s Adirondacks are unruly, they are quieter and serene cousins. The vermicular patterns of the stones are precise and controlled. That said, Weston remained in love with curves and swoops, as well as luscious colors. Closer examination of some of the paintings reveals pointillist patterns in a seemingly solid field.

The piece entitled “Forever Wild” is, paradoxically, the most stylized. Yet his vertically arranged, rope-like lines, which come together in sharp points at the top, may represent the mountain peaks the artist loved so much. Of these abstractions, Weston himself wrote: “They have but one major purpose: to express through juxtapositions of shape, color and suggested movement whatever inner force compels me to paint at this time.”

Weston died in 1972, seemingly in the moment with nature until the moments passed.