I like to paint something that leads me on and on into the unknown, something that I want to see away on beyond.
The age of cyber technology has inevitably propelled humans to succumb to its absolute control over daily routine, work, and family and personal relationships. It has transported us to an obscurely abstract realm that may deliberately make us forget (or refuse to remember) a life without it. Even tiny facets of nature have been wrapped around computerization—food delivery operated by drones, cow breeding managed with tracking software, and satellite tags attached to animals.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860 -1961), fondly known as Grandma Moses, however, was a genuine naturalist who did not want to forget the unembellished life before complex information technology stepped in. Her acute vision of life’s purity and honesty have earned her artworks worldwide recognition. Commemorating the national painter’s 160th birth anniversary, Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo is holding the exhibition Celebrating the 160th Anniversary of Her Birth Grandma Moses: A Retrospective Exhibition until February 27th. The show serves as the artist’s first retrospective exhibition in Japan in 16 years. It introduces approximately 130 pieces she completed until the age of 100, including some belongings that appear for the first time in the country.
Born in New York, Grandma Moses lived in Virginia when she got married. She moved to and from New York and Vermont in her later years. Being drawn to the pristine landscapes of rural life came naturally to her as a farmer’s wife and daughter. Although Moses started painting in her 70s, she took art lessons at school, and as a child, painted eagerly using berries and grape juice to produce colors. She also experimented with ground ochre, grass, flour paste, slaked lime, and sawdust. Her laid-back life was surrounded by domestic chores and quilting, which turned into her “hobby art.” However, during her mid-70s, she developed arthritis and found embroidery work excruciatingly painful. Moses converted to painting, nurturing her particular style of realistic, primitive and almost “naive” interpretation of everyday life in the New England countryside. Eventually, she had produced more than 1,600 canvasses in three decades. Moses received honorable awards and priceless recognitions, including the Women's National Press Club trophy in 1949 from U.S. President Truman. It was an era when people had just been traumatized by the harsh atrocities of World War II and were coming to terms with the Cold War. Moses’ bright and cheerful country settings dotted with community folks living the basic patterns of life have given people hope for the future.
One of Moses’ most popular paintings displayed in the exhibition is Sugaring Off (1955). This captivating winter scene was derived from a well-known lithograph. Moses added her own elements of imagination, grasping the tone of the provincial life she had lived: a mother pouring maple sugar on the snow, the burning cauldron, men carrying buckets, and the little sugar house. The directness, vivid intricacy of details, and rustic realism of pastoral life are impressions that shaped Moses’ sharp artistic skills.
In Apple Butter Making (1947), Moses reminisced on one of the Virginian farms where her family lived and the apple butter making activity in late summer. The picture is a vibrant scene of sweet happiness illustrating the womenfolk feeding in the apples, and the young boys and girls stirring the mixture. The spots of red accents plotted on the verdant landscape create a portrait of gaiety and warmth.
Moses possessed a compelling outlook of positivism during her long life. She determined to manifest this admirable virtue in her light-hearted paintings. A Country Wedding (1951) captures a joyous festivity embracing not only the bride and groom in the center, but multiple couples as well, scattered outside the lawn. They exude gestures of a romantic and whimsical air around them. The large brick house and tall trees placed in the background like a curtain (instead of the foreground or center in most of Moses’ paintings) render a stage-like setting while shedding a spotlight on the characters.
Lightness, comfort, and a sense of affirmation and security shine in Moses’ artworks. Her technique has been compared to a paper doll scrapbook, assigning tiny people, animals and objects theatrical roles on a flat stage without shadows, a foreground or background—void of unnecessary frills or exaggeration. Yet, it is this deliberate injection of unpretentiousness that has lifted Moses’ lifelike sceneries to a revered height of sweet-tempered and long-lasting expression of innate beauty. The striking colors and storylike compositions seem to reveal not just historical vignettes of the simple past, but also a memory of and hope for a humble and uncontrived life we could all live again if we choose to.
What a strange thing is memory, and hope; one looks backward, and the other forward. The one is of today, the other is the tomorrow. Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter; it paints pictures of the past and of the day...I’ll get an inspiration and start painting; then I'll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it so people will know how we used to live.