"Back Country Houses," circa 1935, oil on canvas, by Charles… (San Diego Museum of Art )
SAN DIEGO — In the history of American art, Charles Reiffel is probably the best early Modernist painter you've never heard of.
Celebrated in his own day for Expressionist landscapes of remarkable verve and complexity, he quickly fell off the national radar screen after his death in 1942, just before turning 80. I was unaware of his work until 2008, when seven paintings turned up — and stood out — in a group show.
Now, however, the artist is back, thanks to an eye-opening museum retrospective. "Charles Reiffel: An American Post-Impressionist" is divided almost evenly between the San Diego Museum of Art and the nearby San Diego History Center, both in the city's Balboa Park. Together there are 55 paintings, 31 works on paper and four large-scale murals, plus archival material (photographs, letters, pamphlets, a scrapbook, etc.). The venues each show works that span a career lasting half a century.
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Reiffel racked up prizes galore during his lifetime — at the 1910 Corcoran Biennial in Washington, D.C., the 1917 Art Institute of Chicago annual, a 1922 nod at Pittsburgh's prestigious Carnegie International (the nation's oldest exhibition of international contemporary art), pan-American surveys in San Francisco and Los Angeles and literally dozens more. His best work rewards consideration in ways that make his original acclaim understandable.
Emblematic of what got people worked up is the show's breakthrough painting, "Bit of Silvermine — The Old Farmhouse," a hilly country scene painted in rural Connecticut in 1916. A great, heaving landscape threatens to swallow whole the modest house, sheds, plowed field, wooden fences and other signs of human habitation glimpsed through densely painted trees. This is neither a simple pastoral scene nor a vision of spiritual uplift common to conventional American landscape paintings.
The subject is propelled by a rainbow of vivid color, flecked with stabbed marks of white, that Reiffel laid down in agitated brushwork sliding and scurrying across the surface. The composition's horizon line is high, further jacking up the compression in the excited scene.
A nearly square format (about 3 feet per side) provides contrasting calm stability for the manic exuberance unfurling inside the frame. With variations, these elements characterize most of Reiffel's best work as it evolved over the next 25 years.
If there's a revered artist whose paintings are called to mind, surely it is the much younger Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), the Parisian Expressionist known for extraordinary portraits of aching pathos. But Soutine also painted nearly 200 landscapes in the French Pyrenees village of Céret, where he lived between 1919 and 1922. They teeter at the brink of chaos.
Soutine's turbulent, thickly painted scenes of rustic life amid convulsive nature are usually darker than Reiffel's, as if he's hanging on by his fingernails. Several come right up to the edge of total abstraction, in a way that the American painter's canvases never do. But as booming industrialization rapidly transformed Europe and America, these artists shared a poignant sense of precarious human existence in a roiling world of natural beauty both delirious and dangerous.
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It's worth noting too that Reiffel arrived at his mature landscape vision several years before Soutine, who headed off from the urban sophistication of Paris to the south of France as artists like Cézanne, Van Gogh and Matisse had done before him.
Finding refuge in relative isolation likewise motivated Reiffel's departure from the burgeoning city of New York to a Connecticut village, then finally across the country in 1925 to the modest seaside town of San Diego. And his artistic feat is even more impressive when we learn that, as a painter, Reiffel was almost entirely self-taught.
The division of the show into two parts is a pity, since it inevitably dilutes a full accounting of Reiffel's distinctive achievement. Still, it's the largest survey since the artist's death 70 years ago, and another retrospective is unlikely to happen again soon.
A substantial catalog, deftly researched by independent art historian Bram Dijkstra and with contributions from SDMA curator Ariel Plotek, fills in many blanks in Reiffel's previously undocumented life. Born in Indianapolis to a German immigrant father and his American wife, he trained in commercial lithography shops, producing posters and advertisements at jobs with several flourishing businesses in Indiana, Ohio and New York.
In 1891 he traveled to England. He spent two years in the East Midlands industrial city of Nottingham, working as a journeyman lithographer at the prominent printer Stafford & Co. With money in his pocket he undertook the first of two extended trips around continental Europe and North Africa, visiting museums and sketching along the way.