Bohemian Rhapsody

Artists at Continent’s End: The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907. At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Shows through January 21, 2007.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

Artists at Continent’s End: The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907, now at SBMA, provides two distinct and equally delightful experiences. The first is purely visual — the opportunity to wallow in images of ocean, rock, sunshine, and craggy trees; and to become a connoisseur of blue, green, and brown, including all the various combinations and complements thereof.

Mathews_MontereyBay-6inch_c.jpgThe walls are studded with knock-outs: Raymond Dabb Yelland’s “Sunset at Cypress Point,” Arthur Mathews’s “Monterey Bay,” Mary Brady’s “Sand Dunes in Monterey” (which is worth the trip all on its own), Mary DeNeale Morgan’s “Point Lobos,” and everything by Francis McComas and Gottardo Piazzoni. As this narrative unfolds, you’ll enjoy a strong and California-centered retelling of the history of Western landscape from the 19th to the 20th century. Few important landscape movements are missing entirely. The Hudson River School, French Barbizon, Tonalism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, and even early landscape photography are all amply represented.

There are (with several notable exceptions) few people and little evidence of human civilization in these paintings. If you are not in the mood for communing with nature, the show might seem tame. That is, until you start reading the wall text. When you do so, the show takes on a whole other life. One gets a sense of what it was like for these artists to be a part of a cultural community. Of course, there’s always a mild soap opera plot or two: something involving bohemianism, infatuation, or financial difficulties.

The most interesting wall labels help one to see this art through 19th-century eyes. It is difficult (but fascinating) to imagine, for example, that anyone ever really got passionate on the subject of who was the better artist, William Keith or George Inness. It’s equally hard to envision an era in which Tonalism was considered avant garde and Francis McComas’s work was deemed deviant enough to merit abuse. Imagining such brouhaha regarding works like these, however, takes us a long way toward understanding how small our own immediate crises — artistic and otherwise — might be.

Museum wall labels are notoriously difficult to write, making for one more reason to celebrate the achievement of this show and its text, which works much like the right soundtrack behind a filmic montage, contrasting with the images just enough to help us see them in a new way.

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