Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I Grew Up There. I'm Entitled.

For reasons on which I shall not speculate, the publication that pays my salary has received a review copy of Gary R. Libby's Reflections: Paintings of Florida 1865-1965 from the Collection of Cici and Hyatt Brown published by the Museum of Arts and Sciences of Daytona Beach. Since I grew up in Sanford and remain interested in the inadequately studied history of art in the various regions that have been regarded as "picturesque," I am choosing to write about the book even though it wasn't sent to me and I can't keep this copy for reference.

Private collections are sometimes singularly illuminating when the topic is inadequately represented in public ones. And the imaginative response to the geography of Florida by visual artists is a distinct subtopic of art history that deserves greater analysis, as this book's essays indicate more in passing than in detail.

As the introductory essay points out, from the moment that Silver Springs became a tourist attraction in 1878(!), tourists were on the lookout for high-grade souvenirs as well as the familiar kitsch that has been the subject of any number of popular-culture and material-studies volumes (as I've indicated in past essays about books that I wished I owned from the press of Florida's state universities). Hence a good many creditable landscape paintings (a long way from being kitsch in themselves) were produced for sale to upscale visitors.

But above and beyond that, the spectacles of virgin nature and the agricultural ambiance of large parts of the state made for an exoticism that was attractive to artists in and of itself. Very few of these painters were regional; far more were sometime visitors themselves, and at least one of them, who shall go unnamed, produced an appallingly stereotyped work in response to his visit.

The intriguing thing is that so many of the others got beyond the most obvious stereotypes. There aren't exactly any social-critique paintings in this collection, but there's a painting of one of the distinguished elders of the African-American town of Eatonville (hometown of Zora Neale Hurston) by Jules André Smith, a visitor who stayed and established the Research Studio of Maitland, where he played host to any number of visiting artists, including Milton Avery.

None of this adds up to an unfairly forgotten chapter of global art history, except insofar as it is now possible to realize that global art history has many more chapters than the abridged edition would lead us to believe. Waldo Pierce's painting of himself hunting sharks with Ernest Hemingway is just one more reminder that no matter how exaggerated the mental images of the Sunshine State may be, the reality usually exceeds them.


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