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Grandma Moses, Impressionist?
One of the most important and valuable features of the museum world today is the travelling exhibit. It's a curator's job to pull together, from whatever sources he or she can cultivate, old art and then try to give it new meaning. We see and read about this old art in our art history books or in the massive "coffee table" books based upon some editor's conception of how the works have traditionally been viewed. For many, these ungainly tomes are the closest they will ever come to actually seeing great art. The travelling exhibit tries to bring great art up from the pages of books and onto the walls of area museums, if only for a few weeks. And not only that, but to juxtapose these masterpieces in such a way that the viewer will, hopefully, gain some new insight into the work, augmenting, sometimes even contradicting, conventional coffee table wisdom.

For example, we're all familiar with the work of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. If not, maybe we at least know the work of "Grandma" Moses. We know her as the 101-year-old great grandmother who didn't start painting until the age of 80 when she could no longer see well enough to embroider. We know her as a folk artist painting quaint rural scenes as she remembered them, without regard for the niceties of linear perspective (or any other kind for that matter) and without much concern for volume, scale, shading, or ambient colour, but with an incredible eye for design, narrative detail, and visual textures. We know her as a creative dynamo that turned out more than 1,600 original oil paintings in the last twenty years of her life. Most of us couldn't do that in a lifetime of work.

This is the stuff legends are made of, the image proclaimed in the pretentious coffee table art galleries overflowing with gorgeous colour reproductions printed on expensive glossy pages designed to tempt the reader to rip them out and frame them. Yet such works are bound to the ancient wisdom that a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes, a few thousand words might be a nice substitute for some of the pictures. A travelling exhibit of Mrs. Moses' work, which opened recently at Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts, sought to do just that. Oh, it had the pictures all right, some 87 of them, in fact. But it sought to go beyond the legend and probe the more esoteric elements of her work as well. For example, most of us are unaware that Anna Moses created her paintings using a kind of "assembly line" procedure. She hated to waste paint (decades of near poverty had taught her not to waste anything). So, she did the blue skies of several paintings at a time. Then she'd do the green areas in each of them, or the snow, or whatever, for the same reason. Painting extreme detail in oils naturally meant waiting for paint to dry too. Her granddaughter recalls her having as many as a dozen paintings at a time "in progress."

Also, few of us are aware that Grandma Moses was an Impressionist. She never studied their work, of course. In fact, she never saw an Impressionist painting until she'd been painting for years. Never one to be impolite, her reaction was, "They sure used up a lot of paint." But her unfamiliarity with art history hadn't kept her from using many of the same divided brush stroke techniques and visual colour mixing methods used by Impressionists. Keep in mind that, born in 1860, she was of the same generation as many of the Impressionists; she'd just had better things to do at the time. Her colour techniques were born not from painting but from needlework, where often she did not have the luxury of using the exact colour desired and thus found it necessary to "mix" colours by juxtaposing stitches of two or more different coloured threads to obtain the desired hue. Close examination of her paintings often reveals a similar propensity.

Despite the colourful coffee table books, most of us are similarly unaware of just how popular Grandma Moses' paintings have been. One year, during the 1950s, a greeting card company printed 16 million copies of her work, and this at a time when the international art world was embracing the non-representational work of Abstract Expressionism as being the only type of painting appropriate to a superpower nation. Critics at the time scoffed at her work as belonging to pop culture. Today, Grandma Moses' work rises above the "pop" even the "folk" label and is seen in the landscape tradition of the Hudson River School while some of her originals have been known to bring as much as $100,000.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 March 2001

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