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150 YEARS OF AMERICAN PAINTING

When the inaugural exhibition opened last year in BYU's magnificent Museum of Art, it focused on the lost civilization of the Etruscans.

When the second exhibit opened a week ago, it spotlighted "hidden" treasures - works trapped in storage for years until a museum could be built to do justice to BYU's valuable permanent collection of over 14,000 pieces."150 Years of American Painting (1794-1944)" is comprised of 73 landscapes, portraits, seascapes, still life and history paintings by 56 American artists. Although 73 is a very small percentage of the total number of pieces in the permanent collection, it's a significant slice - thanks to the patience and expertise of curator Linda Jones Gibbs.

From the onset, Gibbs points out that the exhibit was not intended as an encyclopedic view of a century-and-a-half of art, but that it spans a substantial breadth of art history.

Covering artworks from 1794 to 1944, the earliest painting in the show is Benjamin West's "The Baptism of Our Savior;" the latest painting is Reginald Marsh's "Olga, the Headless Girl." Also represented are such styles and movements as the Portraits and History Paintings, Hudson River School of Landscape Painting, American Impressionism, Tonalism and Regionalism.

Several paintings highlight the section of "Portraits & History Paintings."

"The Landing of the Pilgrims" (c. 1845), shows pilgrims posing theatrically in their finery - quite a different visual picture one conjures up when thinking of the challenges and elements they encountered while crossing the ocean.

Another, "Captain William Madigan," is an oil-on-canvas painting (c. 1866) by William Morris. A close look reveals several painting techniques including sfumato (soft edges), hard edges and areas of visible brushwork.

Among early landscapes are Alfred Thompson Bricher's "Sunset in the Catskills" (1862), Sanford Robinson Gifford's "Lake Scene" (1866) and Frederic Edwin Church's "View of the Hudson River Valley from Olana" (1867).

Other eye-catching paintings that punctuate this exhibit include: Victor Nehlig's large narrative "Pocahontas and John Smith" (1870); Emil Carlsen's "Still Life with Goose" (1883); Julian Alden Weir's "In the Sun" (1899); James Taylor Harwood's "Young Constructors" (1903); Richard Emile Miller's "Reflections" (c. 1910), an impressionistic painting of a seated woman daydreaming; and Maynard Dixon's powerful "Forgotten Man" (1934).

Anyone who thinks that an exhibition like "150 Years of American Painting" can be thrown together in several weeks, or even months, is greatly mistaken.

It took Gibbs five years.

During that time, she researched the inventory, finally selecting quality works by the most famous and respected American artists.

She then determined authenticity - or fraud - by contacting experts who scrutinized painters' styles and techniques. Eventually, eight paintings were eliminated because they were not by the artists indicated.

She made certain many of the paintings were cleaned, restored and placed in new period frames to give them the respect they deserved. She said, "Even paintings some people may have seen will look different - with the yellow varnish gone and their bright, true colors displayed."

Her next step was to write an impressive catalog that includes many color reproductions, descriptions, information about the artists and some of the history of the times.

Gibbs made certain there was extensive labeling, hands-on reading materials and knowledgable docents to serve as guides.

"Art can be educational and enriching by learning about its place in time and its history as well as the aesthetics," she points out.

"I am absolutely opposed to the idea that a museum is a place where you merely look at art that has been plucked out of context with no interpretation," she explains. "When it was created, it had a particular purpose and audience. When you remove it from its context, it loses much of its meaning and becomes reduced to its aesthetics . . . "

The Museum of Art is a huge place filled with an abundance of halls and walls for displaying art. Therefore, the "150 Years of American Painting" fills only a part of it. So two other shows have been hung to make the museumgoer's visit an even more memorable one.

- "C.C.A. Christensen's Mormon Panorama" focuses on 22 mural-sized paintings (61/2 feet by 10 feet) by this artist who joined the LDS Church in Oslo, Norway, in 1850 at age 18 and emigrated to the United States in 1857. He pushed a handcart across the plains from Iowa City to the Salt Lake Valley and arrived on Sept. 13, 1857, "with a flag jauntily waving from his handcart."

The idea of a panorama was almost 100 years old when, in 1879, Christensen began touring with his first seven paintings that had been sewn together into a vertical scroll. For 13 winters, he traveled across Utah, adding paintings as he went. When completed, the scroll contained 23 scenes from early church history, including much of the hardship and persecutions members suffered.

Exhibition curator Dawn Pheysey pointed out that Christensen's purpose for presenting his Mormon panorama was not to make money. "His whole purpose for doing this was to teach the younger generation of the sacrifice their fathers and grandfathers made to be members of the church," she said. "He didn't want them to forget that."

In 1970, the panoramas was disassembled and individually framed. Years of rolling and unrolling the canvas resulted in cracked paint, but the images are still clear. Only one of the paintings was damaged so extensively that it ended up in shreds.

A small gallery at the beginning of the exhibit is being used to transport museumgoers back to the 1800s. Two students from BYU's theater and film department - Adam Houghton and Ted Sharon - will alternate in the role of Christensen and read from a script written by Christensen's son, Charles John. During the narration, slides that make up the Mormon Panorama will be projected on a screen. A pianist at an antique box piano will play the hymns that often accompanied the artist's performance.

These presentations will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9. They will then be given two evenings a week - at 7 and 8 p.m. on Mondays and 7 p.m. on Fridays. Pheysey emphasized that anyone interested in seeing this presentation should call and make reservations, since seating is limited.

The catalog accompanying this exhibit is the same one painted for a similar Christensen exhibit held 10 years ago at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.

- The third exhibit at the Museum of Art spotlights another pioneer. George Dibble was one of nine Utahns who pioneered the 20th century modern art movement in 1941. He remained an active advocate of the modern art.

"George Dibble: Paintings on Paper" premiered at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Logan from Nov. 30, 1993 to Jan. 9, 1994. Since then, it has traveled to the Braithwaite Fine Arts Gallery, College of Eastern Utah, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Organized by Ann Poore, it contains 44 paintings, one-fourth of which were chosen from BYU's permanent collection.

"BYU received the Dibble donation in 1991," said Virgie Day, associate museum director. "It is a substantial segment that chronicles the growth of Dibble as an artist."

In addition to the exhibit, the museum staff has assembled a video provided by Dibble's family to offer insights into the artist. Also on display is the artist's palette, traveling easel and some of the duck decoys he used in his work.

Although fascinated with modern art, Dibble seldom departed from drawing and painting recognizable imagery. His ability to create an object by using a minimum of strokes resulted in a type of painting shorthand that was distinctively Dibble's.

BYU also has a selection of sketches by Dibble that are available in the museum's Study Gallery. These works give additional insight into the styles and techniques of the artist.

Herman du Toit, acting director of the BYU show, said that Dibble met with a great deal of resistance when he first introduced his art; at least one educator warned him that he was in danger of falling into the communist camp because his art was too revolutionary.

"That charge seems quite incredible today because he always revered individuality and freedom," du Toit said. He added that Dibble's continuing contributions have made him a valued asset in Utah.