Login

Not a member? Sign up here.

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.

Login

Not a member? Sign up here.