Instructor Kristi Gibbs
The Mythical Mystics
In August 2014, I visited the Seattle Art Museum, better known as SAM, to view the exhibit “Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical”. Several artists were featured, including four men that were credited with starting and defining the modernist movement in our area beginning in the late 1930’s and continuing into the 1940’s. Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson collectively became known as the “Mystic Painters of the Pacific Northwest,” or more simply “The Northwest School” (of Modernism). They were regional artists who all had similar visions and ideals. Feeling that art was a spiritual quest, they sought to create art that responded to the world around them. Their art was influenced by Native American and Asian traditions present in the Pacific Northwest, as well as being influenced by each other. Their vision became universal for a time, recognized in New York and across the country. Established in 1931, the SAM recognized the modernist movement, and it’s founder, Eugene Fuller, provided encouragement and support to the local art scene. Thus, all 4 artists were connected with SAM in some way. Kenneth Callahan actually worked at SAM part time for about 20 years, under Eugene Fuller, in various positions.
The day I went to SAM , it was a hot afternoon, yet the museum was cool and inviting. The staff was welcoming and friendly as I got tickets to the special exhibition. I learned from digging around on their website that the museum’s mission is multi-faceted, with one part being “to provide a welcoming place for people to connect with art and consider its relationship in their lives”. (I tried to recall the ambiance in SAM the last time I was there, about 10 years ago, but not alot stuck with me. I only remember the long line, and luckily, viewing many of Van Gogh’s brilliant paintings. Most likely because I knew seeing the Van Gogh paintings was such a big deal, so I only have this visit to judge by). The docents were just as friendly as the cashier, and pointed the way to the 3rd floor exhibit hall. For this exhibit, they chose to paint the walls in the similar colors that they used during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s when some of these modernist paintings were first displayed. They used drab neutral colors like grey and dark green. The exhibit spanned several rooms, most of the paintings were not actually in what I consider frames, but were stretched over a wooden frame and tacked down. Although there were several paintings in a room, they were not overcrowded, and they were each lit individually, so no shadows were cast upon them. There was nothing else to cause distraction in the room, and the wall colors really allowed the paintings to “pop”. The dominant impression I got was relaxing and calm, even though some of the works themselves were somewhat frenetic. Modernism began to take shape in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s century. The industrial revolution was booming, giving birth to new forms of transportation, like the subway, and steam engine, and changing the way people lived. People taking advantage of these traveled farther, faster and more, expanding their worldview. Prior to the 19th century, most artists were commissioned by wealthy people or institutions to create works depicting religion or mythology, that were intended to tell stories to the viewer. The expanding of people’s worldview, led to new ideas for artists, helping them to break free of only producing work for specific commissions with specific instructions, and they started focusing on their own interests, artistic and otherwise. With this, the idea of the subconscious mind became popular and many artist began exploring dreams, symbolism and personal iconography, directly depicting these and more of their own