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Modern Eyes on a Quaint Reputation

A Grandma Moses retrospective in San Diego takes a fresh look at her cheerful landscapes from a bygone era.

July 08, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Memory is history recorded in our brain," is how Grandma Moses begins her autobiography, "My Life's History," published in 1948 at the apex of her fame. "Memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day."

Throughout her career, launched when she was 80 years old, Anna Mary Robertson Moses specialized in painting scenes of the past, her past, in which an idyllic America kept time to an agrarian calendar: farmhouses and barns tucked into rolling landscapes, people going about their daily chores or reveling in special celebrations, vignettes colored with the stalwart optimism of her Yankee worldview.

Discovered by the art world in 1940, she was famous for two decades. But by the 1950s, she was also being relegated to the world of the quaint and picturesque. "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century," a touring retrospective that opened last weekend at the San Diego Museum of Art, promises a rediscovery, if not indeed a rehabilitation, of this icon.

About 80 works, including several early embroidered pictures, have been drawn together by curator Jane Kallir, in a show organized by the Alexandria, Va.-based Art Services International and sponsored by AARP, formerly known as the Assn. for the Advancement of Retired Persons. Kallir is co-director of New York's Galerie St. Etienne, which was founded by her grandfather Otto Kallir, who brought Grandma Moses to public attention and managed her career. Although the gallery still deals in Moses' works, all the works in the exhibition have been borrowed from private collections or museums.

Kallir is also a recognized expert on the artist, although that would not have been forecast in her youth. "My parents were among those who did not particularly like the works of Grandma Moses or take her seriously," admits Kallir, speaking by phone from Canada, where she was on a business trip. "We had a few in our home, but I never really looked at them."

It wasn't until she had studied art in college that she found herself in her grandfather's gallery "looking at the Grandma Moses paintings and seeing them for the first time. I was awe-struck by the presence of the landscape. These are scenes that come alive."

Born in upstate New York, Moses was the third of 10 children. According to her autobiography, she had a happy childhood in which chores were interspersed with the joys of playing house in the fields, cutting out dolls from paper scraps, and making a painting with leftover house paint. Then at 12, she writes, "I left home to earn my own living as what then was called a hired girl" on a farm.

At 27, Robertson married a hired man, Thomas Salmon Moses. They went to Virginia to find work, returning to New York 20 years later, in 1905, when they bought a dairy farm in Eagle Bridge.

Although the current retrospective includes a work from 1918--a woodland scene painted on a fireplace cover--Moses didn't really start painting until the late 1930s, when she was well into her 70s. Until then, she was preoccupied with household and farm work and raising her children--of the 10 she had, five survived childhood. As she said in a 1943 interview, "I had always wanted to paint, but I just didn't have time until I was 76."

In 1938, art collector Louis Caldor spotted her works on display in a Hoosick Falls, N.Y., drugstore, eventually buying up more than a dozen paintings and taking them back to New York with him. In 1940, he showed them to Otto Kallir, an Austrian emigre who had just opened the Galerie St. Etienne.

Although her grandfather had only a rudimentary knowledge of English, American culture and history, says Jane Kallir, "what he did have, which many people had who were interested in modern art between the two world wars, was a profound appreciation for artists who had not gone to art school." He found most American art provincial and derivative, and "was on the lookout for an authentic American expression."

For him, Grandma Moses fit the bill.

In October 1940, the Galerie St. Etienne held a one-woman Moses show titled "What a Farm Wife Painted." A month later, she was featured at a Thanksgiving festival mounted by Gimbel's department store. It put 50 of her works on display and invited her to speak. The 80-year-old artist traveled to the city, her first visit since 1917, and was on her way to becoming a major American celebrity.

She made the covers of Life and Time. She was interviewed on radio and television. Her works were reproduced on collector's plates, fabrics and millions of greeting cards. However, she chose to remain on the farm.

Hildegard Bachert, Otto Kallir's assistant at the time and now co-director of Galerie St. Etienne, saw Moses regularly and stayed with her while taking dictation for her autobiography. "Grandma was always looking for ways to supplement the family income," Bachert says. "When [her painting] started to be a business, that's when she decided, that's my career. She loved every minute of it, but she looked at it like work.

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