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Beautiful Berkshires: George Inness’ Landscape (Summer Landscape).

The Valley and Beyond
By David Brickman

A Walk in the Country: George Inness and the Berkshires
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, through April 17

One of the quirky things about so-called Hudson River School painting is that so much of it depicts subjects outside the Hudson River valley. Among the people who worked in the style in its 19th-century heyday was George Inness, a native of Newburgh who grew up in Newark, N.J. and settled in Montclair, N.J. as he neared retirement.

In between, he had a major career painting landscapes—often placing them in an idealized no place particular, but also often using (and naming) the Massachusetts Berkshires as source material. The Clark Art Institute’s A Walk in the Country: George Inness and the Berkshires is the first-ever exhibition devoted to this theme; consisting of 15 paintings from the 1840s to the 1870s, and augmented by two later works from the Clark’s collection not painted in the Berkshires, it does a fine job of delineating the arc of Inness’s career.

But the show also has a strong self-serving tang to it, from the sometimes preening tone of the exhibition labels to the somewhat self-aggrandizing panels leading into the exhibition that describe the four Berkshire County patrons who collected Inness’s work. Not that any of it is untrue, exaggerated or irrelevant—but it comes off as seeming almost more im portant than the paintings themselves as presented here.

The work, of course, speaks quite well for itself. A slow start, in which Inness shows himself to have been quite of his times with mannered, even cloying compositions of idyllic, pastoral scenes, soon gives way to more muscular work consistent with the best of the French Barbizon School that was his inspiration in mid-life. The later work reveals an increasing fascination with the philosophical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, which “stressed the correspondences among God, the physical world, and the spiritual world,” and resulted in strong, modernistic paintings.

Conceiving of the Berkshires as a “modern Arcadia” as in literary references to ancient Greece, Inness’s early scenes present a tamed wilderness, always occupied by a milkmaid with a few cows or a shepherd with flock, typically framed by swooning trees and shifting clouds to reveal a long-distance view of low mountains across a sun-dappled valley. These large easel paintings appear designed to look good on the walls of wealthy salons, and they were careful not to stir up anything controversial. Naturally, they attracted patrons.

But the seeds of the later work are there, too, particularly in the attention to colors and particular qualities of light. The last painting in the Berkshire section of the show, dated 1877-1878, has distilled these elements to their essence, leaving nearly nothing else in a vague haziness. Those along the way grow increasingly particular, even as their compositions grow more daring. And the last works, from New Jersey in 1891-92, marry atmosphere and simplified geometry to form very satisfying mood pieces with strong post-impressionist foreshadowings of the future of modern art.

Among the highlights of the show are some of the smaller pieces. One oil on canvas mounted on masonite, dated 1851, is probably just a sketch, possibly painted on site. The result is a less idealized landscape with a healthy roughness to the handling. Another of similar size (about 12 by 18 inches), dated 1858 and titled Landscape (Summer Landscape), is very lovely and ethereal and contains no figures; though soft and sketchy, it is painted in a confident, controlled, vivid hand. Another little gem from 1859, titled Mountain Brook, is only about 6 by 12 inches and features a ridgeline that closely resembles the profile of Mount Greylock, a well-known Williamstown landmark.

The only larger paintings that retain the same degree of freshness or intensity are the Swedenborgian ones: the aforementioned foggy piece and two others titled In the Berkshires and In the Berkshires (The Coming Storm). These feature far more gutsy light, color and composition than the earlier work, with strong contrasts, dark shapes in the foreground and sharp spots of sunlight behind.

Balancing forms according to the philosopher’s theories of spiritual geometry, these paintings provide an experience of emotional equivalency to the viewer—in other words, they are meant to make us feel as Inness did when he painted them. With or without the theory behind them, they are wonderful, rich depictions of the land and weather of our region, painted by a hand that knew exactly how to imbue a composition with the power to enlighten.

By the way, admission to the Clark is free in the off-season—so it’s a good time of year to take advantage and see the whole collection.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Beyond East and West: Seven Transnational Artists
Williams College Museum of Art, through May 15

If you’re wishing to pay a visit to the Berkshires but can’t get your arty, feminist niece to come along, here’s an angle: This traveling show at the always-challenging Williams College Museum of Art offers a smorgasbord of trendy ideas in visual art—from installations to altered images to fraudulent history-as-art—that’s sure to please the theory-driven among us.

It’s an exhibition that strongly supports the notion of a new international style, as evidenced at such world events as Documenta and the Venice Biennale. Whether from Pakistan, Egypt or points in between, these artists have the big picture in mind, even as they purvey their own cultural identities and politics.

Some of the work is pretty good; some of it kinda stinks. I’ll leave it for you to decide which is which—but I’ll bet you can’t remain neutral. Stay open, get engaged—it’s all part of what it means to be transnational, and it’s the future of a lot more than art, my friend.

—David Brickman


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