A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Frye Art Museum. I especially like the museum, because it’s a great place for a quick pop-in with my young son on a rainy weekend day. Because admission is free and the museum is small, the stakes are low. I can get in and look at some art, and we can leave as soon as my son starts to become antsy.
The museum has changing exhibitions that take up most of the space, but there is also a small permanent collection of paintings hung salon style in one large room. I love to visit this room, because my experience of the jumble of paintings is different each time. I seem drawn to a different painting on each visit. This most recent visit had me looking at Franz-Xaver Hoch’s Landscape with Church Towers (1912) again and again. And then I wondered, What is it that draws our attention to a work of art?
My academic training would have me asking further questions such as Who is the intended consumer of this work? What does the inherent artifice of this work say about our relationship to the natural world? What about the implications about class and consumption? These are all interesting and important questions. But I’m interested more in the personal and visceral. (I know—I’m full of surprises.)
You might start by examining the career of Hoch himself, but I know very little about this artist, aside from the fact that he was a German landscape artist working at the start of the twentieth century. Of course the Germans knew a thing or two about landscape painting. Come to think of it, there’s hardly a German landscape painter I haven’t liked, from Albrecht Altdorfer in the sixteenth century to Anselm Kiefer in the twentieth century. But I digress.
What I love about the painting is the sense of storytelling inherent to the composition. A tawny field stretches out beneath a massive gray sky. (I do love flat open spaces with big skies.) But I also am so intrigued by the cupola of the church tower that just barely peeks over the trees at us. (I suppose this also tugs at my heartstrings a bit because it looks a lot like the domes on some Muscovite buildings.) Hoch really seems to be teasing his viewers in a sense. You’ve got what appears to be a lovely, historic building that you want to explore, but it’s blocked by those massive trees. Trees which are also lovely and historic. It’s kind of frustrating, but it also fuels the imagination. You can imagine yourself in the space of the painting, walking through the tall dry grasses. Can’t you just hear the rustling as you walk through it? I love the contrast of bright light and shadow at the base of the building behind the trees. You can get a sense maybe that the tree branches are swaying ever so slightly in the breeze, causing the shadows to dance across the surface of this building. There must be bright sunlight coming down from the top right of the painting. I want to turn my face toward the sun. But mostly I want to keep walking. To discover this old building. To see the massive trees from another angle.
That Hoch leaves so much shrouded in mystery here keeps me looking. After all, aren’t some of the most gripping page-turners mysteries?