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Two unrelated artists named “Stella” were part of the pantheon of 20th-century American art. The more well-known painter is Frank Stella (b. 1936), a geometric minimalist and part of that mid-century group whose abstraction shook the establishment. But earlier, the equally bold painter Joseph Stella (1877-1946) became noted for his futurist works, and this is the artist on view in a vibrant exhibition at the Brandywine Museum of Art.
It’s been more than three decades since there was a major Joseph Stella exhibition. Visionary Nature (co-curated by Audrey Lewis of the Brandywine and Stephanie Heydt of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art) is the first to delve into his stunning works that explore the natural world. The title has double meaning: Stella was indeed a visionary, but as evidenced here, his vision of nature was unique and arresting.
From Italy to Brooklyn and back
Joseph Stella was born in the southern Italian hill town of Muro Locano, returning there (and to other sites in Italy and Europe) regularly throughout his life. In his late teens, he came to America to join his brother (an established New York doctor) and briefly studied medicine, but painting called to him. Mentored by William Merritt Chase, he attended New York’s Art Students League and set up first as an illustrator (a common artistic path at that time). But a 1912 trip to Paris and the 1913 Armory Show exposed him to artists like Picasso and Duchamp, and so Stella began a body of futurist work that would afford him the longest-lasting acclaim.
Those works, especially his fragmented paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge, made him more visible and famous in his era than he is now. But the 80 works on view in Visionary Nature are equally stunning, and stunningly different. Masterful and pulsing with life, filled with imaginative flora and fauna, they evidence the deeply felt spirituality Stella found in nature. These works were created concomitant with the better-known urban paintings, and all his life long, whenever his unease about urbanity surfaced (“skyscrapers like bandages covering the sky”), he turned to the natural world.
An iconoclastic vision
Stella depicted nature with a singular eye: imaginative, brilliantly colored plants, flowers, birds, and trees, all rooted in the classical art of his Italian homeland, the wonders he saw in his beloved Brooklyn Botanic Garden, or his love of the island of Barbados. Though there may be structural parallels throughout his multi-faceted artistic practice, these remarkable paintings are wildly fluid and masterful in their use of color and form.
Because his oeuvre was so varied—he seemingly painted as he wished and how he wished—his career did not have the arc of easy categorization. Stella’s work and iconoclastic vision often differed from that of his peers in both form and subject matter. Referring to his Italian heritage, some are redolent of stained glass, a medium where precision of the kind he mastered was the basis of artistic expression.
Stella also chose subjects that were out of the mid-20th-century mainstream, like the three large and beautiful Madonna figures on view. The most striking is Purissima (1927). On loan from the High Museum, this six-foot-tall work features a serene, impassive Madonna flanked by imaginative flora and elongated, arching herons. The work appears symmetrical; though it’s perfectly balanced in color and form, the details are markedly different on each side. Close viewing allows for an artistic treasure-hunt to find and compare these differences.
An interior conversation?
The most riveting work in the exhibition is Stella’s massive Flowers, Italy (1931). The painting’s cathedral-like pillars and gothic arches mysteriously grow out of a floral base—or perhaps the flowers erupt from the pillars. Stella’s signature strong central focus is balanced by natural forms on either side that seem identical but are not. The imaginative flora and fauna are filled with multiple painting techniques—sections are stippled or seem to drip—and the work sums up the dichotomy of Stella’s career: a futurist impulse tempered by his love of nature’s fluidity.
Most of these works are rendered oil and bursting with multiple techniques and remarkable color saturation, but there is often an almost-matte finish that makes them remarkably warm and tactile. And they are also filled with exotic symbolism and tantalizingly mysterious personal references. Stella often seems to be carrying on an interior artistic conversation, painting foremost for himself, the viewer secondary to his expression.
A New York artist from Italy
The exhibition on the museum’s third floor (and its continuation in a small second-floor gallery) also features exquisite silverpoint drawings. An unforgiving medium in which a special stylus is used to draw on treated paper, silverpoint held a lifelong attraction for Stella. He was a master draftsman, readily apparent in works like Study for Song of Birds (ca. 1924), which has the delicacy of a Renaissance drawing but comes through the glass with immediacy and strength.
As half of the organization that includes the Brandywine Conservancy, this museum is deeply attuned to artists inspired by the natural world. Visionary Nature is a perfect fit, and a substantial illustrated exhibition catalogue explores Stella’s influences and legacy. He is generally considered a New York artist, but Stella is as much an Italian painter as those of the Renaissance whom he admired and whose influence is felt in his arresting, intriguing, and magical work.
Above: Joseph Stella’s 1927 Purissima. (Photo by James Schoomaker. Courtesy of High Museum of Art.)
What, When, Where
Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature. Through September 24, 2023, at Brandywine Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford. $6-$18. (610) 388-2700 or brandywine.org.
The entire museum (including the Millstone Café) is wheelchair-accessible, with accessible parking, a barrier-free entrance, and available wheelchairs. Service animals are welcome.
Masks are not required.
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