The Metamorphosis of California Landscape Art

by Rexford E. Brandt


California lies midway between the Occident and the Orient, between the figure painters of Europe and the landscape symbolists of China and Japan. This may explain the persistence of environmental art as the theme of West Coast painting. But one shouldn't overlook more obvious reasons: superlatives of weather and terrain coupled with a still challenging sense of a new frontier. An iconography, based on the symbols derived from the outdoors, has marched along with the settlement of a remote land and its development into an almost Babylonian urban culture.

The history of California painting traces man's occupancy of this fertile land, in the process moving from a view of the place as seen to the land as a focus for our own emotion.

In barely one hundred years, the artist's view of his surroundings underwent great changes, shifting from heroic cartographic views of unpeopled vastness, painted in the brownish chiaroscuro style imported from the nineteenth century academies of Munich and Düsseldorf, to the genial atmospheric canvases of the impressionists and luminists. This, the plein air view, was to dominate the salons of San Francisco and Los Angeles through the 1920s. Then, with the advent of the Depression, it lost its audience. The stage was set for another step.

The next generation turned to the ancillary arts for a means of survival. With no sense of frustration, they moved into mural painting, motion picture set design, animation, illustration, teaching, and design -- everything from advertisements to housing projects. Landscape painting became a form of recreation. Sunday painters proliferated. (A symbol of the time: night painting on location.) Gone were the classic compositions of the plein air painters. Instead a swirling arabesque contained the visual effect. Gone were palette-mixed colors and indirect applications. The day of ala prima (du premier coup) painting had arrived and with it, the emphasis on the spontaneous sketch. (One critic described the new art as "having an unfinished look.") The attitude of the landscape painter of the thirties to the fifties was, "Even if they don't sell, have fun painting!"

No Messiahs; no polemicists; no manifestos. The pace setters were long on action, short on rhetoric, compulsive painters. Emil Kosa topped off a day's work as a scenic painter by retiring to his studio and completing a twenty-four by thirty inch canvas. Phil Dike regularly set up three sheets of paper for a painting session. Millard Sheets drew and designed even when flying from one assignment to the next. Barse Miller felt that it was an unsatisfying painting trip if he did not return with five works for each day.

This period in time, this viewpoint, and these painters, have been variously named "The California Group," "California Regionalists," "The California Style," "White Paper Painters," and "California Watercolorists." Could it be art? Pundits argue still, but no one gainsays that such involvement and determination created something more than a gestural pastiche. The works have a muscular, virile, and organic quality that transcends the often commonplace subject matter. At best, there is a presence celebrating the fact of being alive and vividly aware of the world.

The word "watercolorist" appears to camouflage the significance of their work, since prior to their influence, watercolor was viewed purely as a sketch medium, and thus of lesser significance than works in oil. Many of these artists, in fact, received equal, and in some cases, greater acclaim for their oils, temperas, and frescoes. But their affinity for the medium of watercolor may help in understanding their intentions.

Because watercolor is quick-drying, portable, epigrammatic -- putting stress on the sketched idea rather than on a finished painting on canvas -- it was favored for outdoor work, investigation, and recreation. A difficult medium to control, it humbled the prima donna, providing a lingua franca, a "visual pidgin English," for all.

Painting outdoors in this provocative medium led to stylistic developments that were carried back to the studio where they often unfolded in oil paint, tempera, or even fresco. Just as Turner's Venetian watercolors opened up the way to his moody, luminous oils, and Cézanne's watercolors en scene are accepted as the basis for his postimpressionistic discoveries, so did the outdoor sketch style of the Californians contribute to their easel paintings, replacing the tradition of pre-planning with direct drawing and selective color. It became possible to paint rapidly with large, full-armed strokes. The result -- a kinetic expression. Textures, too, were more personalized. Like handwriting, the strokes revealed personality differences. For example, George Post and John Haley were identified by geometric patterning, while Phil Dike and others from the animation studios employed more organic, curvilinear strokes, closer to those of the Japanese -- and to Mickey Mouse!

The move away from impressionism was accelerated by a number of influences. Most of the California Group were still students in the turbulent period from the 1930s Depression era to the 1940s war era. With its emphasis on a decorative picture plan and on geometric simplification, Mexican mural painting swept into the state. David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jorge Juan Crespo de la Serna taught at Chouinard School of Art; Jose Clemente Orozco and Ramos Martinez painted frescoes in Southern California, and Diego Rivera painted several in the Bay Area. German cubist Hans Hofmann arrived in 1930 to teach both at the University of California, Berkeley and at the Chouinard School of Art, accelerating the awareness of planarity and respect for the pictorial ground -- whether paper, plaster, or canvas.

With the development of chisel-like, flat, sable brushes and tube pigments -- rather than the little hard, pan colors of the 1920s -- watercolor became a more important medium. Above all, the character of painting at this time was influenced by the psychological emphasis on seeing more than looking -- a gestalt -- a happening, affected by all five senses. The smell of a barnyard, the pressure of wind, the shock of a lizard running up the artist's leg, the buzz of insects -- involved the painter in a super-sensory reaction which carried into his work.

All these elements, all these influences, then, seem to have converged in this time, in this place, to produce the success of a pivotal period in American landscape art.


About the Author

Born in San Diego, California, Rex Brandt (1914-2000) was a painter of broad, splashy, cubist watercolors and became a foremost leader of California artists who brought national attention to California artists in the 1930s and 1940s. Also as a teacher, he influenced countless numbers of students to become skilled in watercolor. Brandt first attended Chouinard Art Institute at age 13. He also studied art at Riverdale Junior College and the University of California at Berkeley where his interest in abstraction began due to the pervasive influence there of Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist. In 1937, he and Lauson Cooper organized "The California Group," a traveling watercolor exhibition that developed interest in the California style of watercolor. In 1947, he and Phil Dike opened a summer school of painting in Corona del Mar, California. He married artist Joan Irving.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was written by Rexford E. Brandt. It is an essay written for, and included in, the 1991 book titled American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, edited by Ruth Westphal and Janet Blake Dominik, and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-3-1. Essay reprinted with permission of Westphal Publishing.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Also see:

California Art History

California Artists: 19th-21st Century

California Impressionism

California Regionalism and California School of Painters

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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