In very much living up to its title, the Norton Museum of Art’s awe-inspiring exhibition “Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature” (opening Saturday) looks with renewed excitement and purpose at its subject’s often-neglected muse: the natural world that surrounds us, or at least his otherworldly version of it.
Stella, an Italian-born artist who rose to notoriety in the post-World War I era, famously painted enduring images of city slums and industrial behemoths, from skyscrapers to the Brooklyn Bridge. He was labeled a Futurist, but the irony, as this wonderfully revealing exhibition explores, is that most his personal work often took him to imagined pasts of utopian verdure, where virgins in opulent dress shared inspiration with mythical water nymphs. With a couple of exceptions selected for contrast, in “Visionary Nature” there is nary a building or bridge or man-made construction in sight. Instead, there is vibrant Eden after vibrant Eden, places where flora and fauna can loom larger than life, unspoiled by humankind’s march to modernity.
The exhibition, organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Pennsylvania and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta but premiering here at the Norton, is organized into nine concise segments spread over three or four galleries. It covers Stella’s experimental forays into nature-based art, his full-fledged absorption into its themes and motifs in the second half of his career, and how his background and various life events—from his Catholic upbringing in Southern Italy, to his long tenure in New York during the heart of the modernist art movement, to his late-career move to Barbados—informed his work.
Stella was by all accounts an articulate visual sponge, an artist well aware of the exciting work being done in western Europe and the Americas. He let some of it seep into his practice. There are pieces in “Visionary Nature” that experiment with pointillism and silverpoint drawing, elegant portraiture and reverse painting on glass. But he seemed to find his groove, as it were, deploying good old-fashioned oil on canvas, a medium that allowed his most colorful, imaginative and, indeed, surrealist works to flourish.
Though not often lumped in with the surrealists with whom he befriended (he even painted his pal Marcel Duchamp), his finest works are unique in large part because of their distortions of the everyday. He painted plant and animal life with a paradoxical obsession for detail but a deliberate disregard for realistic scale. Thus, in “The Ox,” we’re struck by the enormity of the title bovine’s head as it flies disembodied over distant pastures below. In “Neapolitan Song,” a giant, up-scaled palmetto leaf explodes like a firecracker popping over the artist’s beloved Mount Vesuvius. A tower of palm fronds, in the aptly titled “Palms,” positively dwarfs the modest houses below them, and “The Heron” extends the long-necked bird even more vertically than nature provided.
And yet every decision feels just right, whether faintly echoing the saturated colors of Georgia O’Keeffe or the calculated illogic of Salvador Dali. Stella’s manipulations of the natural world’s actual sizes, tones and textures are at the service of a tactile beauty. Just savor another appropriately titled piece, “Joy of Living,” painted in his adopted home in Barbados, and the way the tendrils of a soaring flower mirror the shapes of the nearby clouds, which mirror the curls of the West Indian girl in the painting’s center.
There’s a careful sense of geometry even in the wild worlds of Stella’s imagination, so clearly evidenced in work like “Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds),” in which a yellow beam of heavenly light slices diagonally through the painting, forming a “V” with the Greek pillar behind it. Even in his busiest paintings, nothing is ever out of place.
It’s also intentional, I think, for works like these to exude a religious sense of awe. In the press tour she led this week, Norton Senior Curator of American Art Ellen E. Roberts suggested that while Stella was raised Catholic, he was more likely a pantheist by the time he painted his singular nature scenes. How else to explain “Swan (with Rainbow),” which places the sinuous waterfowl in a sacred, circular frame more befitting of a 19th century saint?
Even in his more straightforward faith-based painting “Purissima,” two herons flank a life-size virgin figure, and the birds, tellingly, are the same height as the human. This symmetrical motif is mirrored in “Red Flower” (shown at the top of this blog), though this time the two birds have craned their necks upward to the gargantuan amaryllis between them, in a position that can only be interpreted as reverence: exactly the word that described Stella’s appreciation for nature’s joyful bounty.
“Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature” runs Saturday through Jan. 15 at Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Museum admission is $15-$18, or $5 for students. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.
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