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Films of the Imagination, Pageants in Paint: Minerva Teichert at BYU

Pioneer Family by Minerva Teichert

In the canon of Utah art, few artists are more recognized and beloved than Minerva Teichert. Her works seem to cast a spell over those within and without the local art community as something like a sacred enigma.

Not much is known about her. Born in North Ogden in 1888, she grew up on a remote Idaho ranch, studied in New York and Chicago, and died in Cokeville, Wyoming, in 1976. Her life is known through her art. Somewhere behind the layers of paint an artist’s soul lies hidden, immortalized in a body of work that reflects her and her passions. A retrospective of this work, Minerva Teichert: Pageants in Paint, now hangs at The Brigham Young University Museum of Art through March 8, 2008. The exhibit has been curated by the artist’s granddaughter Marian Wardel, who does an estimable job in representing the prodigious oeuvre of this enigmatic Utah artist.

Pageants in Paints reveals Teichert’s art in a meaningful, provocative and educational manner and focuses on Teichert’s oeuvre incorporating an essential aspect of her art: its theatricality. As the photographs seen upon entering attest, this “enigma” was herself highly theatrical. She delighted in a very bohemian, eccentric and ornate style of dress. And Teichert loved film. Her favorites included Buffalo Bill, both of The Ten Commandments, and the early film Brigham Young. This keen interest in film and the theatrical — and this cannot be overstated — is reflected in her art, not only in composition but in subject. The majority of the works are large-scale narrative murals allowing for a monumentality which incites a theatrical experience. Entering the museum exhibition space at BYU, one feels as if one is walking through the proscenium of a stage set or pageant.

Moving South by Minerva Teichert

How are Teichert’s pageant-like paintings meaningful and why are they the core of the exhibition? Narrative elements play a significant role in the arts: painting, film, literature, theater, music, opera, dance. Early academic painting placed narrative as the highest achievement for the artist. Each painting of Teichert’s fits this qualification and paints a story, a little film in the imagination. The meaning and presentation are just as informative. Through characters who seem alive in their placement within the picture, the action that is represented tells the stories that were interesting and powerful to her. These are stories of high human drama: Mormon pioneers crossing an endless plain, early civilizations offering sacrifices to their Gods, cowboys galloping through the uncharted West, the struggle of a poor family to survive, the plight of the American Indians. They are painted with compassion and affinity. These are the types of stories she liked to tell; these episodes, these little films tell stories of the past that she has preserved and are great archives of the history of the United States and the Americas.

Teichert is masterful in her use of composition. Structurally, her works attain an acute sense of balance between the figures and the space they occupy. She uses many vertical planes for her subjects but always balances them with a horizontal, such as in “Handcart Pioneers,” a train of Mormon Pioneers balanced with mountain ranges. Often figures on the edge of the canvas set off the interior, allowing the viewer to focus upon what is unfolding within. In “Broncho Dance,” mighty warriors invite the gaze of the viewer but guard the entrance. The potency of these outside figures are echoed by a strong central focus contrasted with a horizontal; in this case a goddess-like figure. These are inventive compositional elements that allow the story to unfold in paint and add to the quality of theatrics in Teichert’s work.

As in a film, the colors in Teichert’s paintings have a holistic aspect. Innovatively, Teichert developed a color palette which is wide in range, yet definitively her own. The diversity of the color palette can be seen throughout the exhibition, but it is noticeable that each individual narrative incorporates a portion of that broad palette and gives each canvas a unique quality. Her range extends from nocturnal blues, as in “Night Raid,” to a vivid fuschia sunset in “Mounted Hunt.” However broad the spectrum, a continuity in the coloration of figures, structures and landscapes gives one a feeling of unification in what is being looked at. But like a great filmmaker, a great composer or a great playwright, Teichert tends to have areas of focus, climaxes of sorts, often created by strong areas of purer, vivid hues, which add greatly to the meaning and flow of the narrative.

Night Raid by Minerva Teichert

Teichert’s works are rendered by other more obvious narrative devices such as the borders which surround most of her pictures. These allow the viewer to glimpse into this world as one would in a pageant or play. It creates a detachment, a separation between the viewer and the narrative. We are meant to be observers, not participants in these candid moments. The borders are the most palpable reference to seeing her work in terms of theatrics. More than this her sense of style created the boundary between our reality and her illusion.

Though Teichert studied in New York and Chicago, was mentored by Robert Henri, and familiar with members of the Ash Can School, her work has largely been ignored by the canon of American Modernism. Her situation as a woman, westerner and Mormon may have something to do with this exclusion. Yet she cultivates her brand of Modernism no less than others and might have been placed amongst the best. Teichert painted when her contemporaries, the Modernists of the “canon,” tended toward abstraction, seeking to give their paintings an autonomous objectivity. Her brand of Modernism, however, emphasized the subjective and placed the viewer, as theatrics does, outside of the picture plane, a pictorial device common in Academic art, in which a picture’s frame served as a window one peered through. As Cezanne did, and what traditional narrative does not do, Teichert placed her figures frontally. She created narrative planes, implying depth without chiaroscuro. Like her contemporary, Picasso, Teichert used blocks of color, structural motifs of line, shape, color and shade to create depth. These devices are not used to create an objective dialogue but rather to tell a story; not about art for art’s sake but art for our sake. The result is effective, bringing the viewer close to the story yet at a safe distance. These are stories of the brave and courageous — they are not about us — and she treats them with due respect.

Minerva Teichert has a style of painting, to those who know her work, which is easily identifiable. Characterized by thin paint application and a loose rendering of forms, Teichert creates scenes of drama and figures filled with pathos. Painted loosely in painting after painting, one sees in Teichert’s figures’ profound expressions revelatory of so much emotion. She can create a face as sensitive as a Gainsborough, denote figures with a few well-placed strokes, trees with a gesture, and flesh out the body of a horse with a remarkable example of foreshortening rather than the use of chiaroscuro. To many painters, these results might be considered “happy accidents,” but the abundance of interesting poses, gestures, glances, and movement in Teichert’s work shows that these are the result of masterful brushwork. She uses figural grace to propel her stories, as in “Bear Lake,” where each face reflects a different personality. Facility of painting such as this lends itself to a canvas which is rich and full but not heavily painted. Qualities as these designate her as a true master.

Using the theatrics of Teichert as a basis for this exhibition was an insightful and innovative way of bringing her art together. It certainly provides an excellent vehicle which the public may enjoy and have a foundation, a state of mind, by which they can approach this art. Thus, viewers will be able to understand the works- presented in this manner we see what Teichert saw, or at least see the vantage point from which she saw: her vision. The viewer might leave the exhibit with a more comprehensive understanding of this incredible art and possibly unravel some of the “enigma” which is Minerva Teichert.

Get Ye Up Into the High Mountains by Minerva Teichert

Minerva Teichert: Pageants in Paint continues at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art through March 27, 2008. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Museum has mounted a series of lectures including In(Her)Sight: Minerva Teichert’s Vision of a Public Art, by Robert O. Davis, Senior Curator, Museum of Church History and Art (January 24), “The Right Kind of Patriotism:” American Historical Pageants Past and Present, by Megan Sanborn-Jones, Department of Theatre and Media Arts (February 21) and Climbing the Hill: The Power of Pageantry, by Rory Scanlon, Rodger Sorenson, and Janet Swenson, Department of Theatre and Media Arts (March 27). For more information visit the Museum’s website.

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