Charles Burchfield’s Animated Spirit

Posted inComics & Animation Design
Thumbnail for Bill Blackbeard's Final Splash Panel

[Ed note: This is the second entry in Academy Award-winning animator John Canemaker’s exclusive monthly column for entitled “John Canemaker’s Animated Eye.” His forthcoming book, Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant and Joe Ranft, will be published by Disney Editions in August. You can read his review of The Animator’s Survival Kit here.]

"Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring)," 1950, watercolor by Charles Burchfield.

The ecstatic, pantheistic, intense, mystical watercolors of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) have long fascinated and inspired me. I love his vibrant, expressionistic depictions of forests, fields, insect and bird sounds, storm clouds, mysterious ravines and dilapidated houses—in general, the superb way he communicates his awe of nature and natural forces.

Burchfield hailed from near my neck of the woods, as we say in upstate New York; he and his family settled in a rural suburb of Buffalo in the early 1920s, but my connection with him is more than geographical. He feels like a kindred spirit close to animation in his transcendent landscapes with their subtly anthropomorphic designs.

“Look on a tree not only as a design,” Burchfield wrote in a 1916 journal when he was 23, “but also as a living growing object, which almost has emotions like ourselves.” That sentiment reminds me of a 25-year-old Walt Disney saying in 1927, “I want the characters to be somebody. I don’t want them just to be a drawing.” Years later, Disney maintained, “The most important aim of any of the fine arts is to get a purely emotional response from the beholder.”

Did Burchfield have an animation sensibility or an interest in the animated film and movies in general in his essential awareness of “transience?”

"The Insect Chorus," 1917, watercolor by Charles Burchfield.

To find out, I flew to Buffalo last August to meet with Nancy Weekly, curator and Head of Collections at the spacious new Burchfield Penney Art Center, which opened in 2008. The center holds the largest collection of the works of Charles Burchfield, including a facsimile recreation of the artist’s studio. “I believe Burchfield’s sense of animation predates his exposure to animated films,” Weekly said as we looked at examples of Burchfield’s art from every phase of his long career. (In 1930, the Museum of Modern Art chose Burchfield for its very first one-person exhibition.)

“In 1915, after seeing Chinese scroll painting, he created ‘all-day sketches’ which chronicle visually changes in the weather and time of day—the position of the sun and moon,” Weekly continued. “In a way, they are similar to storyboards. While he put the idea aside for a while, he revisited it later in life to create season transition paintings.” She then took me into the museum’s archival section, restricted to scholars, where I was treated to a white-glove inspection of some of Burchfield’s hand-written journals and handmade albums and folders containing 25,000 preliminary drawings and studies.

“Also related to animation,” she explained, “are his developments in 1917: ‘Conventions for Abstract Thoughts’ for human emotions and what I call audio-cryptograms, which are visual patterns for nature sounds, particularly insects, birds and frogs—and later phenomenon such as the wind/telegraph harp.” In the catalog for a new exhibition of Burchfield’s work, she writes that he incorporated the visual “conventions” into many early and late period paintings to convey psychological emotions when realism proved “inadequate for that goal.”

John Canemaker with curator Nancy Weekly examining preliminary drawings by Charles Burchfield at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Buffalo, N.Y.

Burchfield’s journals confirm his keen interest in moving pictures and animation, and are peppered with his straight-forward film critiques. Benjamin J. Townsend, editor of a collection of the journals, noted Burchfield “did not hesitate to point out artistic flaws, even in those films he otherwise admired. His tastes ran to Westerns, historical epics like The Ten Commandments and War and Peace, and, above all, the animated films of Walt Disney.

“He saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at least three times and Bambi at least twice. Still, he objected to Disney’s distorted animation of animals and was outraged by the treatment of musical classics in Fantasia. Disney’s films came too late to have had a direct influence on Burchfield’s own use of ideographic conventions to animate nature, but there is no question that he found a reaffirmation of one aspect of his own art in Disney’s.”

After seeing Snow White for a second time on March 15, 1938, Burchfield wrote: “I enjoyed it more than the first time. Those flaws I noticed seemed to have lessened or disappeared. I had the thought while watching it that Walt Disney with his whimsical art will do more for the general peace & happiness of the world than all the propaganda and peace talk in the world; for to me it is inconceivable that a nation looking at such things could foster hate.”

In an entry the next year (August 22, 1939) he commented that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz “was good, and delightful in spots, but it seemed to just fall short of greatness; nor could it be compared to Disney’s ‘Snow White.’ The camera, when it comes to inventive fantasy, can never compete with the artist.”

As early as 1915, Burchfield drew on 19th-century aesthetics of synesthesia and symbolist theory (“… composing rhythms and colors” with designs “thrown upon a large screen to a large audience who could watch and receive the same sensations as on listening to notes”). Burchfield was “unconsciously parallel[ing] the association of abstract rhythm and color with musical tones and states of mind by Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, and Morgan Russell,” Townsend observed. “More precisely, he anticipates Walt Disney’s use of the device in his animated films, especially Fantasia (1940).”

However, when he reluctantly did see Fantasia in 1941, his “rage was so great that I was literally beside myself. There is no artistic need or justification for such a collaboration as this, in the first place—but even if we should agree it was worth trying—the cheap, low vulgarity of over half of the episodes, was simply incredible … The treatment of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony was pure destructive burlesque. Many writers have tried to excuse Disney on
the grounds of ignorance–but it is more than that—it is a deliberate aim to besmirch and degrade everything that is fine & noble in our culture — It is like revolutionists throwing rocks thru cathedral windows.”

Although he viewed Bambi (1942) twice in 1948, he found it:

Somewhat of a disappointment — altho the thunderstorm in the woods, the transition of autumn to winter, and the forest fire were still enchanting. Hard to take were the background music and the cloying sweetness of spring effects, and the “cuteness” of the animals with the enormous hard stylized eyes, and bulging foreheads. The humanizing of the animals was not a happy thought.

Burchfield preferred the stylized designs of the UPA cartoon studio. In 1954 he attended a Magoo Festival, which is four or five cartoons of the delightful comic character. He writes:

Equally fascinating as the comic situations arising out of his near-sightedness, are the highly decorative and conventionalized backgrounds and scenes. A golfing and hunting sequence had utterly fantastic trees & woods, yet somehow having the inner character of the woods much more than a more realistic or sentimental approach (such as Disney does to death).

A final journal entry regarding Disney in 1957 praises the time compressing fast-motion processes used in the true life adventure documentary Secrets of Life (1956):

Of especial beauty for me, of course, was the incident of showing hepaticas pushing up out of dead leaves, and growing into full bloom. Apparently such plants are never [quiet], but move [too] slowly for us to see with the unaided eye. By speeding up the process, they were seen to sway back and forth as if in ecstasy. The speeded up picture of wild cucumber vines, made them apparent like serpents, swaying and writhing, looking for a place to fasten to.

Burchfield damned the accompanying (unnamed) cartoon as “incredibly bad,” concluding “An amazing man, Disney, full of contradictions.”

For a close look at the art of the amazing Charles Burchfield and his animated spirit, catch the traveling exhibition “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield,” curated by sculptor Robert Gober last year for the Hammer Museum in LA, currently at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo through May 23. The show travels to the Whitney Museum, in New York City, from June 24 through September.

Read the first entry of “The Animated Eye,” about Jeff Smith’s upcoming film version of his epic Bone.