Confused and irritated by contemporary art, many viewers happily escape to the never-never land of the so-called California Impressionists. In their paintings, the sun never sets on sparkling seas and light-bleached hills, and gentle women in pretty dresses have all the time in the world to savor the delights of a lazy summer day.
This work generally is accepted at face value. Collectors nervously keep tabs on the market, sentimentalists ooh and ah, but it's hard to find the kind of critical scrutiny and historical background accorded to other bodies of art.
In "California Light: 1900-1930," opening Friday at the Laguna Art Museum, guest curator Patricia Trenton set out to place the art in a clear-eyed sociological context.
The exhibition of 75 paintings by Franz Bischoff, Maurice Braun, Alson Clark, Joseph Kleitsch, Edgar Payne, Granville Redmond, Guy Rose, Donna Shuster and William Wendt is accompanied by a catalogue with 10 essays exploring different aspects of the style that dominated California art decades after it had ceased to be current in Europe.
Aptly calling the work the embodiment of "a stubbornly independent conventionality," essayist Michael McManus, former chief curator at the museum, notes that the accomplishment of the California artists "was to stem briefly the tide of modernism's advance . . . through the creation of a beautiful anachronism. . . ."
Under the harsh glare of the Southern California sun, artists went their own ways, often distorting or modifying working habits and theories of their French artistic forebears. California Impressionism marked the last hurrah of plein-air painting, done out-of-doors to capture instantaneous effects at the source.
But, as McManus points out, some artists "used the outdoors as a mechanic might use a particular tool; others achieved a certain mind-set through it and only secondarily were interested in fixing transient visual phenomena through direct observation."
Maurice Braun, McManus explains, placed his faith in mystical color systems as well as the evidence of his eyesight when he painted the San Diego countryside. William Wendt stuck to naturalistic color, applied with an almost Expressionistic vigor.
Edgar Payne was really an academic painter in Impressionist's clothing, according to McManus. The artist stayed indoors to paint detailed models of fishing boats in Impressionist-style broken brushwork, and carefully recomposed his outdoor sketches of mountains into idealized visions rather than trying to capture the fleeting quality of optical sensations.
Essayist Bram Dijkstra, professor of American Literature and Cultural History at UC San Diego, proposes that the Impressionists' use of light was a double-edged sword, glorifying female passivity as well as the brilliant light effects of nature.
Iris H.W. Engstrand, professor of history at UC San Diego, discusses the phenomenon of migration to Southern California, widely touted for its natural beauty, "healthful open-air enjoyments" and exotic Spanish mission heritage. No one was shilling for Laguna Beach, which could be reached only by a tortuous road through the canyon or a dusty dirt trail along the ocean.
But one Norman St. Clair ventured out by stagecoach in 1900, began painting widely exhibited watercolors, and the rest was history. Artists came flocking in, and by 1919, the town's first art gallery recorded 15,000 visitors.
Ultimately, the central factor in the art of the California painters was the quality of the light. As artist Joachim Smith writes, "The sad, cool light from the North, or from the East, is not the light of lotus land. Our light is always Southern and Western, glowingly solar, Arcadian and Utopian, flushed with milk and honey: a light more appropriate to Eden."
The early landscape artists took a long, loving look at this promised land, and, in Smith's words, "captured for the nation the sunny idyll at the end of the continental road."
* ART LISTINGS, Page 20.
What: "California Light: 1900-1930," an exhibit of 75 paintings by the so-called California Impressionists .
When: Friday, Oct. 12, through Jan. 6, 1991. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach.
Whereabouts: Take the Santa Ana (5) or San Diego (405) Freeway to Laguna Canyon Road, which becomes Broadway and dead-ends at Pacific Coast Highway. Turn right, drive two blocks, and the museum will be on your left.
Wherewithal: Admission is $2 general, $1 seniors and students, free for children under 12.
Where to call: (714) 494-6531.