by Joe Lindeberg; Ann Klefstad
April 22, 2003
The show runs January 25 - June 22 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, 505 Landmark Center, 75 W. 5th Street, in Saint Paul. A Curators' Panel and gallery talk happens Thursday, April 24, 6-9 pm.
This show made me think intensely about how differently different people see the same things. Thinking about the difference individual vision makes, and about the role that any viewer's cultural context plays in his or her perception, made me want to compare my insights into this show with those of another critic. Luckily, Patricia Briggs contacted me about a review of this very show written by a student of hers at MCAD, Joe Lindeberg. On reading his review, I thought that it would be great for mnartists readers to see both takes on the show side by side. So here you are: first Lindeberg's version of the show, then mine. The reviews are followed by a number of links to current landscape artists who have work on mnartists. This is just a small sample of the landscapes you can see on the site. Click on these links to explore some of the reaches of present-day Minnesota landscape, and form your own impressions of this genre.
--Ann Klefstad, editor
From Nature to Culture
The Minnesota Museum of American Art's Artist's Paradise
boasts a broad selection of Minnesota landscape paintings spanning 100 years, and includes also a number of lithographs, colorized photos, and vintage Minnesota souvenirs (from painted cups, saucers, and postcards to sand art and even a tabletop inlaid with a mother-of-pearl recreation of Minnehaha Falls). The majority of the three-room exhibit is devoted to paintings. The varying styles of work follow the trends, styles, and mood of the times. The earliest images in the collection reflect purely the beauty of nature. As the show progresses, viewers begin to see European immigrants’ dominance over nature.
My favorite painting in the show is Jerome B. Thompson’s "Minnehaha Falls," from 1870. Minnehaha is the Dakotah expression for “laughing waters,” and Thompson captures this well. The sunlight glittering off the misty air is so realistically done that I could almost feel the humidity on my face and smell the dampness.
In 1858, Thomas Rossiter painted an idyllic landscape that could have served as an advertisement promising lush bounty for every immigrant farmer. The painting, "Minnesota Prairie," focuses the viewer’s attention on the misty glowing sun in the center, spreading its light over an endless, treeless inviting prairie. A settler’s claim shanty sits in the foreground. Everything in the composition is focused on the infinite sunlit prairie beyond. Nearby is the 1888 work "St. Paul from Pig’s Eye," by James Larpenteur. The city is shown in soft afternoon light in the distance – very small and insignificant compared to the richness of the landscape. The painting is a sweeping panorama full of brilliant fall colors and a few bucolic cows.
Famed painter and illustrator Wanda Gag, a native of New Ulm, is represented here with several lithographs as well as a watercolor. The swirling landscape of the watercolor is full of energy. Her frenetic tree and plant forms pulse with life; they resemble Van Gogh’s "Olive Trees."
The show makes it apparent that once human beings began to dominate the Minnesota landscape, the face of nature began to change. Some artists chose to depict the impact of Western civilization on the environment. One arresting painting, Alexis Fournier’s 1890 "St. Anthony Falls and the Minnesota Exhibition Hall," shows a hulking brick building looming over the angry-looking remains of the falls. Nearby is Julius O. Holm’s 1893 "Tornado Over St. Paul." In Holm’s painting, a squat and ugly St. Paul is threatened by a vast approaching tornado, covering two-thirds of the canvas. Holm accurately depicted the city under that eerie greenish pre-storm light that only first-hand experience with a tornado will teach you.
The Depression era is well represented here. In Stanford Fennel’s 1933 watercolor "Eggs for Sale," an old car heads past a sale sign on its way out of town, toward a dark and ominous horizon. Fennel’s thin, muted colors are bleak and depressing compared to earlier renditions of the land. B.J.O. Nordfeldt’s "Minnesota Farm" (1938) is a tortured landscape of harsh brushstrokes with howling winds and a grey-black sky threatening a lone farmhouse. "Golden Valley" (1937) by Glen Alison Ranney shows a prosperous community with plump cattle and well-fed people, but their faces all wear a uniformly bleak expression.
A broad range of style, technique, and inspiration is on offer. In his painting "Indian Camp" (1922), Cameron Booth pursues his own abstract expressive style. With its broad expanses of flat space, thick brush strokes and bold color, "Indian Camp" shows a strong Gaugin influence. One of the most recent paintings in the exhibition, "Beaver Bay" by Elof Wedin, stands out. It shows a distinct cubist influence, in strong contrast to everything else in the show. Depiction of nature takes a back seat to stylistic expression: a group of angular abstracted boats is clustered in a North Shore harbor. The inclusion of Booth’s and Wedin’s abstract paintings round out the show by offering the viewer a broad range of expressive approaches to representing the Minnesota landscape.
Is a Landscape a Painting or a Piece of Territory?
One hundred years of landscapes with Minnesota locales make up this
show, and what is most remarkable about it for me is that it looks less
like where I live than it looks like a lot of paintings. This seems
dead obvious, I know, but it was very surprising to me.
I went to the museum expecting to recognize these familiar places, the
woods and rivers and lakes and cities and towns, the farms and the
people, of my native state. I've lived here, off and on, during the
whole course of my life, and I love the landscapes of this place. What
was odd was that the pleasantly familiar jolt of recognition never
For over one hundred years, then, painters have been depicting Minnesota
scenes. Many of the locales seemed familiar: Minnehaha
Falls, a fine etching of an evening view of St. Paul, a farm field in
August, many versions of the Mississippi. But seeing the hundred years
of paintings, I noticed the subjects less than I noticed the
precession of styles. Here's a farm scene, say, in a nineteenth-century
pictorial mode, and here it is in an early modernist mode, and here
again in a mode derived from 1920s decoration, and again in a version
that leans heavily into a kind of luminist abstraction. What one
remarks on, when one sees all these styles and versions of fields
together, is that artists paint subjects less than they paint
paintings. Seldom is one given the opportunity to note this so
This said, what also becomes apparent is the derivative nature of much
Minnesota painting. One can see, in this show, Minnesota Barbizon,
Minnesota Hudson River, Minnesota organic abstract landscapes a la
Milton Avery (Dewey Albinson), Minnesota Robert Henri (Arthur Allie),
Minnesota Ryder (Nicholas Brewer), etc. Only a few paintings and prints
blast their way out of the sticky webs of stylistic association into a
Julius Holm's Tornado Over St. Paul
is one of these. This is an
overwhelming work, hypnotically focused on the foreboding storm, and
the treatment of the cloud edges in particular is sharply observed and
freshly rendered. Holm was apparently self-taught. Clement Haupers, the
partner of Clara Mains, did Winter Sunset
in a palette that
resembles no one else's. And of course Wanda Gag looks like no one but
Wanda Gag. The notable originality of these pieces, however, bring them
even farther from being mere depictions of their subjects. One sees
these works, rather, as depictions of their makers.
This experience of going to a show of landscapes and seeing, not the
trees and rivers but the paint, made me curious about the landscape
work to be found on mnartists.org currently. See the series of links
for fresh reports from this "artist's paradise." See what you think
about the current state of landscape in Minnesota, and post your
thoughts to the forum devoted to responses to articles.