Pissarro, Anatsui captivate at the Clark

The workaday subjects of Camille Pissarro’s paintings may be hidden among the pastoral landscapes of the artist’s brush or shrouded in peasant’s clothes, but at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s continuing exhibit “Pissarro’s People,” they literally jump off the canvas.

Stroll across the museum’s front lawn and walkway and it’s hard not to notice the brightly-dressed sculptures of farmers, hay balers and apple pickers – even one woman in a flowing skirt, bent over as she tends the earth.

Perched on the Clark’s front lawn, these hay figures represent the people in Pissarro’s paintings.
Perched on the Clark’s front lawn, these hay figures represent the people in Pissarro’s paintings.

The exhibit, which began on June 12 and will be open until Oct. 2, is rightly named. It showcases not only Pissarro’s working people, the classic subjects of his art, but also figure drawings and portraits of his family, both biological and fellow artists he came to know, love and mentor – his people.

One room highlights the French impressionist’s portraits of maids and servants, another his depiction of field workers and yet another his self-portraits and representations of family and friends. This last room includes a rare charcoal drawing of the artist’s mother, who seldom appears in Pissarro’s work, as she lies on her deathbed wearing a coverlet and a stricken expression.

His family portraits are noticeably different from Pissarro’s well-known paintings of land workers. While family members sit front-and-center as the subjects of his paintings, Pissarro’s pastoral persons – faces always at least partially obscured – blend into landscapes that are more often than not more elaborate than the individuals themselves.

And sometimes, even the landscape blends into another type of background: the canvas. The Artist’s Palette is an oil-on-panel painting in which Pissarro begins with several hues – burnt orange, bloody maroon, faded emerald, milky white, midnight blue and mustard – and places them on the edges of the palette, which becomes his canvas. The end result is a landscape framed in greenery and, of course, the artist’s original daubs of paint in their natural colors.

Pissarro’s reputation as one of the more experimental impressionists is evident in Picking Peas and Apple Harvest, two works that clearly flaunt his interest in pointillism. Close-up, the paintings are each an intricate wealth of color; far away, their unity of scene takes shape.

The collection does not reflect much of Caribbean-born Pissarro’s upbringing in Saint Thomas, but for one painting, Two Women Chatting by the Sea, Saint Thomas. In the scene, the two subjects stand in stark contrast to their background, which consists of a hazy gray-blue sky, a glassy cove and a craggy bluff in the distance. One woman in white emerges from the background, and a more brightly attired woman in a blue dress seems prepared to forge on into the dull, cloudy, enveloping landscape that faces her.

Meanwhile the Clark’s Stone Hill Center plays host to another international artist, though a more modern man. Three found-art sculptures of Ghanian-born El Anatsui have filled the expansive gallery perched on the hill since June 12 and will remain there until Oct. 16. The pieces are about as monumental as the surrounding mountains themselves.

For Anatsui, space is his canvas and scraps – metal and bottle caps in particular – his medium. Calling to attention the role of alcohol in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, he uses these tiny aluminum pieces frequently in his work, weaving them together with wire to represent the link between Africa and Europe.

Delta, a wall-hanging constructed from aluminum and copper wire, is a metal collage where several colorful stripes run like rivers over the rippled landscape of the sculpture into a pool area – a delta, perhaps – that is woven from a different color of metal scraps.

Strips of Earth’s Skin lends itself to the appearance of a tattered curtain. A silver structure snakes trough the vertical hangings, into which bottle caps, neatly cut bits of metal and folded aluminum are intermixed to create unique textures and patterns within the mosaic.

While these first two pieces pack a punch with color variation, the third and largest of Anatsui’s sculptures, Intermittent Signals, is opposite in its appeal: it astounds in its sheer size. The piece is an almost even flow of the same color pattern throughout, filling nearly an entire wall horizontally, and then draping onto the floor with the effect of a swath of fabric. But the size of the piece is relative. Each of Anatsui’s sculptures would be hard to fit through the front door.