hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture July 2017


‘A world of her own imagining’

Show reveals parallels between Modernists and Grandma Moses


(Image copyright 2017, Grandma Moses Properties Co., New York) Private collection, courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New YorkBy TELLY HALKIAS
Contributing writer



“The Quilting Bee” (1950) is among the works by Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses (1860-1961) in a new exhibit that explores how her techniques unconsciously paralleled those of leading Modernists of her era. (Image copyright 2017, Grandma Moses Properties Co., New York) Private collection, courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York

For the last several years, the Bennington Museum has set out to capitalize on what is arguably the greatest asset of its permanent collection: the works of Grandma Moses.

But the museum’s director, Robert Wolterstorff, and its curator of collections, Jamie Franklin, don’t just shuffle various Moses works onto different gallery walls. Instead, the two art historians have sought new and fresh ways to interpret the context of art from Moses’ era and beyond, often by comparing and contrasting her with other prominent artists.

So on July 1 the museum opened its major exhibition of the summer and fall, “Grandma Moses: American Modern.” The show is jointly organized with the Shelburne Museum, which, along with private collectors, loaned many of the pieces in the show.

Wolterstorff said the exhibit will present the American primitive master in an unorthodox manner.
“Grandma Moses is our signature collection,” he explained. “She was a local artist, and we always have at least 20 paintings on view. But this summer we’ll be showing more than 60, the largest assemblage anywhere in decades. And we’re doing something a little radical with this show.”

The exhibition will find Moses paintings in an unfamiliar milieu: hanging side-by-side with works by Fernand Léger, Joseph Cornell, Helen Frankenthaler and Andy Warhol – all paragons of Modernism.

“We are being subversive, in the sense that we want to subvert your expectations,” Wolterstorff said. “We all think we know Grandma Moses, the little lady who began painting in her 70s and then became the most famous artist in America -- the little lady who painted charming, old-timey pictures of rural New England life. But did you know that her first public show was at the Museum of Modern Art? Or that the people who discovered and embraced her work were the same ones collecting Modern art?”


Creating her own process
The Bennington Museum is home to the largest public collection of paintings by Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961), who found international fame during the 1940s as the result of her charming, naïvely executed paintings of rural American farm life.

Franklin said Moses is much more than a homespun folk hero.

“The popular view is that she simply painted scenes remembered from her childhood,” Franklin said. “In fact, she was a highly skilled artist who refined her art through practice and created a unique world of her own imagining.”

Moses combined multiple perspectives in the same painting, he explained, and used collage and popular imagery, unconsciously paralleling the techniques of Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art.
Franklin said the new exhibition is as diverse as the artists represented and allows for fresh interpretations of their works as well as those by Moses.

The juxtaposition of the Modernists displayed in the show can inspire the imagination when comparing them to Moses, Franklin said, especially given her “mastery of abstracting from nature” and the fact that her work is full of “bird’s-eye views of landscapes filled with figures that tell complex narratives.”

Moses had a distinctive creative process, Franklin said, including her technique of borrowing imagery from popular sources, “combining them collage-like into a cohesive whole.”

By creating detailed depictions of seasonal activities, Moses came to be especially associated with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Franklin pointed out a specific example of that theme in Moses’ 1940 painting “Catchin’ the Turkey.” Although the finished product feels like a seamless, cohesive whole, the curator explained that Moses’ similar paintings are actually patchworks of borrowed sources, such as newspaper and magazine clippings.

These are pulled completely out of context, and from the artist’s own memories and associations, Franklin noted.

“Moses surely had strong memories of the annual ritual of catching the turkey for her family’s Thanksgiving meal,” Franklin said, noting that she repeated this subject more than a dozen times throughout her career. “However, as with all her paintings, what seems like a vividly recalled personal memory is in fact a carefully constructed image, ripe with nostalgic associations.”
In her personal writings, Moses described this phenomenon in her work, echoing Franklin’s curatorial vision: “I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene.”


Clipping and tracing
In “Catchin’ the Turkey,” the boy running in pinwheel fashion was traced from a figure in John Falter’s Saturday Evening Post cover painting, “Evening Picnic,” in which the boy actually was frolicking with other children.

Referring to that child, Franklin said Moses had a talent for finding images of figures that powerfully conveyed abstract visual information via posture and body language. Once she found them, she would use certain figures multiple times.

These images were traced from clippings Moses kept in a large painted trunk she would periodically rummage through to find inspiration. She gathered unrelated clippings to create new images, medleys designed in her imagination.

“It is impossible to say exactly” how many of Moses’ paintings were drawn from her voluminous collection of clippings, Franklin said.

“But given the surviving evidence, the majority of her figures, animals, buildings and even a large percentage of her landscape elements were directly traced or adapted -- in some way, shape, or form -- from pre-existing imagery,” he said.

Franklin pointed to a parallel in the work of the Modernist painter Helen Frankenthaler who, he said, “also held the landscape inside herself and let it pour out.”

In Frankenthaler’s case, this literally meant splashing thinned oil paints directly from a coffee can onto a canvas on the floor. This was the technique she used to create works such as “Silver Coast” (1955), which is included in the show.

Describing the creation, Frankenthaler recalled in her own writings that though it was painted in her studio, “the memory of the landscape is in the painting.”

In assessing the contrasts analyzed by Franklin’s curatorial eye, Wolterstorff concluded that the show is all about being able to look and see something that defies expectations.

“We’re not saying that Grandma Moses was a Modern artist, or even that she looked at the work of the Modernists,” Wolterstorff said. “But we are saying that a lot of what she does is what Modern artists do, and you can see it in the comparisons. She invented her own world. She didn’t sit out on the hills painting the view. Rather, she painted from an active, creative memory.”
Moses created complex space with multiple viewpoints like the Cubists, and there are surrealist qualities to her work, he added. She also was a collage artist, appropriating from popular imagery just as Andy Warhol did.

“In many ways she is a post-Modern artist, and that’s exactly what makes her so exciting and interesting today,” Wolterstorff said.


“Grandma Moses: American Modern,” will remain on view through Nov. 5 at the Bennington Museum, at 75 Main St. in Bennington. For more information, visit www.benningtonmuseum.org or call (802) 447-1571.