Tag Archives: Charles Burchfield

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Charles Burchfield and Egon Schiele

28 Jul

“You can tell her that I’m easily found
Tell her there’s a spot out ‘neath Abraham’s bridge, and tell her
There’s a darkness on the edge of town
There’s a darkness on the edge of town…..

…Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost…”

(Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town)

Charles Burchfield, New Moon, November 1917, watercolor and opaque watercolor with graphite

Egon Schiele is a painter whose artworks I have been in love with for many years now and Charles Burchfield is a painter whose work I only discovered two years ago but am getting more and more enthusiastic about. Both of these artists had a particular flair for capturing the houses and townscapes not as mere physical objects made out of wood, brick and mortar, but rather they captured their mood and character. And both artists preferred the medium of watercolour or gouache to the more traditional oil on canvas, and, as my readers here know, watercolour is my favourite medium. Charles Burchfield’s painting “New Moon” and Egon Schiele’s painting “Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent) are painted around the same time, in 1917 and 1918 respectively. Whilst Schiele’s painting shows the entire small town of Krumau with many houses crammed close together, Burchfield’s watercolour focuses solely on one house and a particular one indeed.

Burchfield’s watercolour “New Moon” shows a strange and twisted black wooden house which is very close to the road. There is a tree growing in front of the house and it visually disrupts the scene; the tree trunk is in the way of the scene and the black tree branches are thin and clawlike, stretching to scratch whichever intruder passes by it. The facade of the house is contorted in a surreal manner, almost as if it was laughing. A house with a grin and three windows with teeth in them. We can see only a part of the house next door on the left and it looks equally eerie. The sky is dusty pink and yellow and the colours match the blackness of the house. And we can’t even see much of that candy floss-vanilla sky because the house takes up most of the space on the paper; it domineers, almost swallows the space around it, making the scene look mysterious and claustrophobic. There is not space for anything but the house on that paper. I can only imagine what stranger Hawthorneesque characters might inhabit this Gothic abode.

Egon Schiele, Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent), 1918

On the other hand, Schiele focuses not on a single houses but on a cluster of houses which, strangely, seem to make up a living organism of its own, a unified skelet that would fall apart if one house was demolished. Schiele’s portrayal of the small and picturesque Czech town of Krumau (which, in Schiele’s life was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) is vibrant and dense. He uses thick brushstrokes of warm, heavy, earthy tones; brown, yellow, orange, warm purple, some muddy green. This combination of colours and brushstrokes makes the town appear old, uninviting and slightly claustrophobic. If you look up pictures of Krumau you will see that the town is as dreamy and fairytale like as can be, and this is definitely just Schiele’s vision of Krumau. This is Schiele’s portrait of the town, its character and mood and the way he perceives it. The town seems uninviting to me, and I can imagine a person walking down those narrow streets and the houses just getting closer and closer, obscuring the sky with their roofs and crushing the person to death. The town is melancholy and decaying but it doesn’t like someone to see it. In his portraits, Schiele usually focuses on the person and ignores the background, he doesn’t care to fill it with colour, but here he takes time to add brushstrokes and brushstrokes of thick, muddy brown.

Both of these artworks disturb me, but in a good way and when I hear Springsteen singing ‘darkness on the edge of town’ this is what comes to my mind… But also, seeing the way Burchfield and Schiele portrayed houses, streets and towns makes me look at houses and street with a pair of new eyes, it makes me notice the strangeness and the character that many houses and builings possess.

Bruce Springsteen’s Blue-Collar Heroes, the Rust Belt and “My Hometown”

22 Jul

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody
Wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks
Foreman says, “these jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown…”

(Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown)

Charles Burchfield, Grain Elevators (Evans), 1931-33, watercolour

Lately the things that I have been seeing, reading, and listening to have turned my thoughts towards the Rust Belt; its decaying towns and fallen industries, its sad flair of something that once was thriving and great and just isn’t anymore. Of course, the main inspiration behind this theme were songs and the lyrics of the songs by Bruce Springsteen, especially from the albums “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.”. Then, I watched two horror films: “Don’t Breathe” (2016) and “It Follows” (2014) and both are set and (partly) shot in Detroit. In both films we can see the whole neighbourhoods of abandoned, decaying houses and that was both immensely sad and visually striking to me. I was thinking about and started rereading (for the 10th time probably!) Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America”.

She was a huge Springsteen fan and would, at times, fantasise of leading the kind of life that the heroes in his songs led: “Sometimes I lie in my own bed and listen to music for hours. Always Bruce Springsteen, which is weird, I have to admit, because I’m becoming this really urban punked-out kid, and he is kind of the spokesman of the rumpled, working-class suburbs. But I identify with him so completely that I start to wish I could be a boy in New Jersey. I try to convince my mother that we should move out there, that she should work in a factory or as a waitress in a roadside diner or as a secretary at a storefront insurance office. I want so badly to have my life circumstances match the oppressiveness I feel internally. It all starts to seem ridiculous: After all, Springsteen songs are about getting the hell out of the New Jersey grind, and here I am trying to convince my mom that we ought to get into it. I’m figuring, if I can just become poor white trash, if I can just get in touch with the blue collar blues, then there’ll be a reason why I feel this way. I will be a fucked-up Marxian worker person, alienated from the fruits of my labor. My misery will begin to make sense.

Charles Burchfield, Hot Summer Afternoon, 1919

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores…

And finally, I read “Voices from the Rust Belt”; a collection of essays by different authors, edited by Anne Trubek. Some of the themes that linger throughout the essays are urban decay, deindustralisation, white flight, school desegregation, suburban boredom, rise of crime etc. Here is what Anne Trubek writes in the Introduction “Why the Rust Belt Matters (and What It Is): (…) in the 1970s, the demand for steel, which was high during World War II, had begun to wane, and many saw their jobs disappear. Arguably the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history was Black Monday, September 19, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio closed down, leading to a loss of some forty thousand jobs. Also notable: the region’s population peaked in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. Those manufacturing jobs are never going to return to the levels seen in the 1970s. The lack of jobs and opportunity for the white working class has been an ongoing problem for over forty years now.

The essays reveal the contrasts between the American dream and the reality of life in the Rust Belt, especially in connection to the decline of the industry and the failing economy. Likewise, the heroes of Bruce Springsteen songs, especially on the albums “The River” (1980) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), are the blue-collar workers who often find themselves loosing their jobs due to the failing economy, or, as is the case with the hero from the song “Downbound Train”, the misery of their hard work is intertwined with the miseries outside it such as the love woes.

Max Arthur Cohn, Coal Tower, ca. 1934

The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania was one of the largest anthracite coal breakers in North America. It was built in the 1930s and closed in the 1970s. John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA.

While the guy from the aforementioned song has three different jobs in one song: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard/ Now I work down at the car wash/ Where all it ever does is rain/ (…) Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang/ Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain…”, other heroes such as the guy in the song “The River” are not as lucky; he did find a job but there hasn’t been much work because of the economy: “I got a job working construction/ For the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work/ On account of the economy/ Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air/ Now I just act like I don’t remember/ Mary acts like she don’t care…”

In songs such as “Youngstown” Springsteen directly mentions the town and referrenced the closing of Jeanette Blast Furnace owned by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube and closed in 1977 but uses a simple, poetic language to convey the sadness: “Here in Youngstown/ Here in Youngstown/ My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down/ Here darlin’ in Youngstown…” Songs such as “Out in the Street” deal less with the job losses and the failing of the economy and more with the everyday reality of being a blue-collar worker; the song’s hero is waiting for his shift to finish, waiting for the working week to finish just so he can out in the street, see his girl, and, talk and walk the way he wants to talk and walk:

“Put on your best dress baby
And darlin’, fix your hair up right
‘Cause there’s a party, honey
Way down beneath the neon lights
All day you’ve been working that hard line
Now tonight you’re gonna have a good time

I work five days a week girl
Loading crates down on the dock
I take my hard earned money
And meet my girl down on the block
And Monday when the foreman calls time
I’ve already got Friday on my mind
When that whistle blows
Girl, I’m down the street
I’m home, I’m out of my work clothes
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I walk the way I want to walk
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I talk the way I want to talk….
_

Perhaps the most interesting and sad reference to Rust belt’s deindustrialisation is in the song “My Hometown” where the foreman hauntingly foresees the future and says that the jobs are going and are not coming back to their hometown.

William Arthur Cooper, The Lumber Industry, 1934

In the 1920s and 1930s many artists such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Burchfield, Max Arthur Cohn, William Arthur Cooper and many others captured the glory of the industrialised landscapes in their cold and slightly bleak portrayals of the coal mines, modern machinery, lumber yards, and steel mills. Some of these artists were either inspired or directly involved with the art movement called the Precisionism; a uniquely American art movement which sought to portray the machinery and modern life in a precise, sharp and cold manner. For them, the industrialised landscapes were a sort of a victory over nature and they were fascinated by the newest inventions and the sleek appearence of these new machines. Little did they know that some thirty-fourty years after they had painted these painting those same steel mills, lumber yards and coal mines would be abandoned and destroyed. These painters captured the heigh days of the Industrial Midwest before it because the “Post-Industrial Midwest” (a synonim for “Rust belt”). Just look at the painting “Coal Tower” by Max Arthur Cohn; how dark, gloomy, powerful and intimidating the coal tower appears, its windows gandering over the landscape like the eye of the Mordor. And what a contrast this powerful building is to its decaying state to which it succumbed.

Max Arthur Cohn, Bethlehem Steel Works, 1938

And returning for a moment to the collection of essays “Voices from the Rust Belt” I have to say that I really recommend it if you are interested in the topic. I love that each essay is written by a different author. In that way we get a unique and intimate perspective on the topic, writing styles are different and most essays deal with personal experiences, memories, longings, so it is very personal and the sadness of the Rust belt is then even more palpable. My favourite essays are “The Fauxtopias of Detroit Suburbs” by James D. Griffioen, “Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall” by Eric Anderson, “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit” by Marsha Music, and “A Girl’s Youngstown” by Jacqueline Marino. I would like to end this post with a quote from the essay “Moundsville” by David Faulk: “When I first heard the term “Rust Belt” during my last year of junior high, the rust had barely formed on Moundsville. (…) The Ohio Valley in the early 1980s was marked by patterns: for every mill closure, bankers closed in on the houses, women dried their eyes with pink Kleenexes, and the belts came off. Then families moved away or fell apart.

Charles Burchfield – In a Deserted House and Bruce Springsteen’s Downbound Train

7 Jun

In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried…”

Charles Burchfield, In a Deserted House, ca. 1918-1939

I find myself listening to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train” a lot these days. It was in June five years ago that I first discovered it and it also happens the song was released on the 4 June 1984, so with all these little “anniversaries”, I thought it would be nice to write a little tribute to it, in a way. What instantly attracted me to the song was its sad tune and Springsteen’s wailing voice while he is singing about a love that is lost… The song’s opening lines instantly struck a chord with me: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard” because they express contrast of good times versus bad times; he had something good and now it’s gone. The protagonist, having lost his job and then a woman he loved, also lost a sense of security and stability. The dream is gone and now there’s a dark, rainy cloud that seems to follow him everywhere. Now he single; alone and lonely, working at miserable jobs where it always seems to rain.

After reading the lyrics, carefully, as if they were a poem, I was struck by this little tale of misery. It almost feels like a short story and not a song because it tells a tale, as Springsteen’s songs often do. The song’s protagonist, a lonely working class guy, is telling us a story of his life and its troubles from the first person; he was working at the lumber yard, then at the car wash and in the end of the song he’s “swinging a sledgehammer on the railroad”. This day to day realism is interwoven with his longing for the woman who one day “packed her bags”, bought a train ticket and left him behind. The culmination of the poem is a wonderful, nocturnal, moonlit scene where the guy hear the voice of a woman he loves calling out to him and he returns to the scene of their marital bliss, a house which is now empty and sad; “the room was dark, her bed was empty” and then he drops to his knees and cries, and later we find out he is working at the railroad now, the very same railroad where the train passed by; the train that his wife took to leave him behind.

“I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going, mister, in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the car wash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?
She just said, “Joe, I gotta go
We had it once, we ain’t got it anymore”
She packed her bags, left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train
Last night I heard your voice
You were crying, crying, you were so alone
You said your love had never died
You were waiting for me at home
Put on my jacket, I ran through the woods
I ran ’til I thought my chest would explode
There in a clearing, beyond the highway
In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried
Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang
Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain
Now, don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?”
*

This scene made me think of Charles Burchfield’s delightful watercolours of houses and abandoned places such as the room in the watercolour above “In a Deserted House”. The grey colour scheme of the watercolour gives it a gloomy, lonely mood that is further expressed in the details such as the tattered wallpapers, torn at parts, a cold fireplace; there’s no one to sit there and enjoy the fire. Now only a cold breeze visits the house and passes through it as a ghostly breath of the past. In the song there is a reference to the bed which isn’t painted in the watercolour but I feel like the mood of the watercolour matches the mood of the scene. Burchfield’s paintings are described as the “catalogue of tattered dreams: abandoned towns with their false-fronted ramshackle facades, sitting on the edge of vast prairies, decrepit Victorian rowhouses, resembling tooth-less old women, the barren wastes left by industries once robust.” (American Encounters: Art, History and Cultural Identity) Abandonment and decay, a poetic sadness, are some things that linger through Burchfield’s artworks, mostly watercolours, and I feel the same vibe from some of Springsteen’s songs such as the “Downbound Train”, “The River” or “The Stolen Car”. Watercolour “In a Deserted House” and the song “Downbound Train” both deal with the motif of what-could-have-been; the house now empty, desolate and cold could have been warm with sunlight, laughter and a fireplace, just as the dark room in the wedding house in the song could have been a place of happiness and love. Both express a sense of something lost, something gone that cannot be recaptured.

Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Tattered Dreams

5 Jul

“Burchfield’s paintings in the years between the wars are a catalogue of tattered dreams: abandoned towns with their false-fronted ramshackle facades, sitting on the edge of vast prairies, decrepit Victorian rowhouses, resembling tooth-less old women, the barren wastes left by industries once robust.”

(American Encounters: Art, History and Cultural Identity)

Charles Burchfield, Promenade, 1927-28, watercolour on paper, 31 5/8 x 42 1/2 inches (80.33 x 107.95 cm)

Charles Burchfield’s watercolours of streets, houses, lonely barns and fields all have a particularly haunting and captivating lyrical beauty, but his watercolour “Promenade” painted in 1927-28 seems to be my favourite because it is at once so whimsical and poetic and tinged with a certain melancholy of grey and brown shades. Abandonment and decay are motives which linger throughout Burchfield’s artworks. He gave a new life to motifs that Modernism had ignored; in times when other painters, such as Charles Sheeler, George Ault and Max Weber, glorified speed and modern architecture, Burchfield returned to the past, in a poetic and not sentimental way and portrayed all the lonely, forgotten corners of the town. This watercolour may not be the best example of Burchfield’s fascination with the motif of decay and abandonment that linger throughout his work, but it is incredibly poetic and shows how Burchfield gave personalities and unique quirks to buildings and places rather than people.

His watercolours such as “Promenade” look as if they arose from a puddle of rain; watery, grey and dipped in wistfulness and nostalgia. My eye wanders from one corner of the painting to the other and every bit of this artwork delights my eyes; the gloomy and mysterious houses have windows which resemble eye sockets, like something from Edgar Allan Poe, and so are the almost bare treetops with grey masses of leaves and long, dark and thin branches which stretch out like long shadowy arms ready to snatch you and take you down to the underworld. You can imagine the sad autumnal wind playing its mournful tunes and making the leaves dance between the street lanterns, wooden fences and trees. Once shining roofs and freshly painted facades now appear as if the whirlwind of change and decay had left its irreparable mark. The melancholy appeal of trees and houses is broken by the action in the street; cars are driving up and down the street, a plump old lady is walking her dog and three other dog are running after it, and this really adds a touch of liveliness to the mood. Still, the liveliness in the street doesn’t reflect itself on the old Victorian facades.

Watercolour “In a Deserted House” is a better example of Burchfield’s poetic enthusiasm for decaying places where spiders weave their webs in the corners of once dear and sunlight rooms, once cheerful wallpapers are now flaking, old fireplace is now cold, laughter is heard no more, and who lived there, no one knows any more. You can really feel that Burchfield felt the beauty and sadness of those places.

Charles Burchfield, In a Deserted House, ca. 1918-1939

Charles Burchfield, The Abandoned House, 1959