"I walked in and was amazed."
-- Paul Richard, reviewing
Walter Anderson in The Washington Post.
When Mississippi artist Walter Anderson's tiny skiff was caught in a hurricane, he lashed himself to the mast like the Greek hero Odysseus and endured the storm. He survived malaria and a water-moccasin bite during an attempted canoe trip down the Mississippi. When he was a mental patient at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, he tied blankets together and went over the wall. When he couldn't make domestic life work, he would fill a small metal trash can with food and art supplies and row the 10 miles from his home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to Horn Island, and there he would live like a hermit for months at a time, sleeping under his ramshackle boat, deciphering the language of pelicans, chronicling the mating habits of crabs, and obsessively producing artworks that rival the most famous American masters.
Walter Anderson's Horizontal Pelican (1945), linocut on paper.
When"Walter Inglis Anderson: Everything I See Is New and Strange," an exhibit celebrating Anderson's centennial, opened at the Smithsonian in September 2003, Paul Richard, art critic for The Washington Post, was moved by the artist's bizarre and tragic life story, especially Anderson's uncanny knack for escape and survival. Nearly four decades after Anderson died of lung cancer, he's still escaping, still surviving.
The Smithsonian exhibit and Richard's review represent yet another daring getaway for the mad Mississippian. Prior to the exhibit, Anderson's fame barely extended beyond New Orleans, the city of his birth, Ocean Springs, and Memphis, where he received his first major show at the Brooks Museum of Art.
Writing for The Commercial Appeal in 1950, art critic Guy Northrop proclaimed, "A genius is among us. Never before has a city seen such a show as this." Half a century later, the equally breathless Richard asked, "Why isn't [Anderson] famous? Vincent van Gogh is the most famous painter in America, and here's this Mississippian whose light-struck pictures throb, as do the disturbed Dutchman's, with furious, methodical ecstasy, and are as American as can be."
"Everything I See Is New and Strange" at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens contains 160 of the 180 pieces from the Smithsonian exhibit. It confirms Northrop's early analysis and more than lives up to Richard's recent exultations. It shows us the work of a visionary artist who, though versed in art history and exposed to the great innovators of the 20th century, maintained the perspective of an outsider, completely unfettered by trends. It is work that bears comparison to Kandinsky, Munch, van Gogh, Picasso, Stella, Demuth, and Audubon.
All his life Anderson craved harmony. He was fascinated by the idea that music could be painted, and that when certain colors are juxtaposed just so, they vibrate like notes played in harmony. As a student at the Parsons School of Design, he won a scholarship to study abroad, which allowed him first-hand access to works by European masters.
Anderson's son, John, recently told The New York Times that his father "intensified experiences by painting them. When he read a book," the younger Anderson said, "he would illustrate it while reading. By drawing he became a participant in the prose." And so it was with nature.
The Dixon exhibit contains a study for one of Anderson's murals, titled Ocean Springs, Past and Present. In it, art deco trees function like measures on a musical score, while Native Americans and various animals are rendered in elegant but primitive fashion, scattered across the plain like notes on a staff. It is perhaps Anderson's most literal attempt to translate music into painting. Other, less obvious pieces like Reflections in a Bull Rush Pool, a watercolor on 8-by-11-inch typing paper, and Wind, Wave and Bird, a 76-by-18-inch linoleum block cut, seem to sing themselves right out of the frame. The former is an obsessively detailed painting of reflections in a pond that is alive with motion. It is, in many ways, the most crudely painted, childlike offering in the collection. It is also as stunning and innovative in its expression of light and color as any van Gogh.
Wind, Wave and Bird comes from a period when Anderson was concerned with the idea of creating art that anyone could afford. The plan was to make linoleum prints on wallpaper and to sell them by the foot. Wind, Wave and Bird is an abstraction of blue birds in flight, clearly inspired by the stained-glass windows Anderson had encountered in Europe. Observing it is like listening to a Beethoven symphony beneath the arcs of a Gothic cathedral.
Anderson was not merely a painter. His mother, Annette, had been a devotee of the Arts and Crafts movement and a believer that the distinction between fine arts and lowly crafts was artificial and unfair. Her ideas had a profound influence on Anderson, who hooked spectacular rugs, worked in various textiles, carved furniture, built sculpture, designed ceramic figurines, and decorated pottery as intricate and mysterious as anything from antiquity. The Dixon exhibit is comprehensive. All of Anderson's skills are on display.
After his father's death, Anderson began to suffer from depression. He became death-obsessed, haunted even by the birds he and his brothers hunted for study. He heard voices and was given to fits of sudden and extreme violence, sometimes directed at himself, sometimes at others. He cut himself and often considered suicide. At the time, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, though today it seems unlikely that that was the case.
"The diagnosis [of schizophrenia] is highly questionable given his ability to express his talent in such a stylized, organized, appealing fashion," says Dr. Paul Rodenhauser, assistant dean for academic and counseling services at Tulane University. Rodenhauser, who has taken special interest in Anderson's work as it relates to his mental condition, will deliver a lecture titled "Alternative Reality and Art: The Creative Work of Walter Inglis Anderson" at the Dixon on February 20th.
"Anderson's style is distinctive, unlike any other artist's work in my experience," says Rodenhauser. "His illness probably allowed him to be much closer to his subject matter than most artists experience. Someone once commented that his yearning to merge with nature progressed throughout his life to the point that there was no space remaining between him and his painting."
Anderson himself agreed. "I become one with all living things when I blend water and my sense of touch," Anderson once told his wife Sissy. And in one of his many poems, Anderson wrote, "Every little movement, each discovery/ is a part of the heavenly music/ and if my ears/ were functioning properly/ I would hear an orderly and recognizable harmony."
It is only fitting that "Everything I See isNew and Strange" should come to Memphis. Many of Anderson's first serious collectors were from the Bluff City. Memphis artist Burton Callicott studied pottery with Anderson and established a longstanding bond between Ocean Springs and the Memphis College of Art. To this day, MCA students take an annual trip to Horn Island.
But the Brooks and MCA aren't the only Memphis institutions with connections to Anderson. "My wife [Patricia] is a painting conservator," says Dixon director James Kamm. "She restored all of the murals that are in the Walter Anderson Museum [in Ocean Springs]." Kamm says he was in New Orleans at a party a few years back when he first heard of the plan to assemble a centennial show celebrating Anderson's work. Kamm says he made it clear that if the show came together, he wanted to bring it to the Dixon.
The Dixon also is showing additional Anderson works from local collections, as well as works by MCA students inspired by their trips to Horn Island.
Anderson's stock is clearly on the rise. In the wake of the D.C. opening, his status as merely a regional artist has been seriously reconsidered, and his art is selling at record prices. He is also the subject of Fortune's Favorite Child, an intriguing and exhaustive biography. This may be the first you have heard of Walter Anderson. It won't be the last.