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A Historic Art Collaboration at the Burchfield Penney

A painting by Claire Shuttleworth from the collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Time Share

This exhibition in the Margaret L. Wendt Gallery at the Burchfield Penney Arts Center presents an historical perspective of Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century.

My own impressions of that time come first from photography rather than painting; Even sculpture seems more representative of that era for it was truly monumental. I especially think of self-styled portraits in stiff Victorian poses, looking staged, contrived, the sitter uncomfortable with the medium, shuffling, changing expression as if unable to cease movement for even a moment: Should I change something? Hat more on the back of my head? Maybe cocked? The results were iconic: the subject tensed, eyes fixed in gaze as immobile as statuary.

Not so with painting. Coming out of both the “Americana” and European Post Impressionist tradition, from pristine wilderness to the modern marvels of human inventiveness, these artists tried to put on canvas the routine as well as trumpeted glories of an ever-encompassing landscape. The historical weight of these paintings bears on the Niagara frontier region at a major pivot point in the new world’s burgeoning industries and commerce. In these paintings, in even the most familiar places and personages, the sense of a promised future appears theatrical. The crowds gathered for President McKinley’s speech at the Pan Am Exposition in the work of Raphael Beck look as if they’d been staged by Cecil B. DeMille.

With the age of steam came the fortunes of the lake cities. Buffalo was at the pinnacle of industrial heights, on a seemingly unalterable course for riparian dominance in world commerce. In a logo representing the Pan American Exposition of 1901, also by Raphael Beck, North and South America morph into continental lovelies demurely touching hands across the isthmus of Panama. Curiously the starred hat on the Latin model resembles Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s famous beret. Somewhat more dishabille female figures are depicted in two famous paintings, Maiden in the Mist and The Maiden’s Sacrifice.

The mist rising from Niagara’s cataracts create, along with the factory smoke, a kind of metaphoric smoke screen that hides a great industrial cabal that would, with the complicity of the press, augur for a war-fighting nation state built on the demands of imperial conquest. Fletcher’s Furnace brought to me, unbidden, a chilling recollection of the twin towers on 9/11. But I knew the dense, Turner-like jewels of light peering through belching soot formed the leitmotif of the industrial landscape. The city was proud of that smoke.

There are certain works picturing vignettes of Buffalo’s city life which contemporary residents may find engaging and nostalgic—the unspoiled natural vistas in the tondos on wood mounted on volunteer fire companies’ parade wagons figure broadly in the idealized frontier tableau.

This exhibition depicts the results of historical events and the influence of patriotic as well as artistic ideas. It is not about who painted them or how well; It is about what is painted and why. It is about what all visual communication seeks to do: make an impression on the mind through what the eye perceives combined with what the viewer brings as historical experience. Time Share runs through May 29.

j. tim raymond

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