Putting the ‘wild’ in wildflower 

Crisply attired and ladylike, Marise McDermott greets a small group of reporters, tourism-board reps, and other media folk at the venerable museum’s entrance. We’re directed past the bursting gift shop, beyond the Triceratops replica skeleton, and away from the vintage natural-history dioramas (of which the snarling mountain lion on a trompe l’oeil West Texas cliffside was always my favorite) toward the Memorial Auditorium. The mood in the auditorium is one of hushed excitement on the part of the Witte staff, bemused curiosity and cheerful cookie-eating by the journos and photogs; the occasion is the media preview for the exhibition Bluebonnets and Beyond: Julian Onderdonk, American Impressionist.

The exhibition’s title alone opens up a can of worms for me. First of all, it contains the giggle-inducing surname “Onderdonk,” which later perusal on the internet reveals to be of Dutch origin, and translates roughly into English as under … um … “donk.” Add to this the hoary spectre of bluebonnet painting itself — an artistic genre loaded with ambivalence. On the one hand, I associate bluebonnet paintings with a certain garage-sale-and-craft-show ubiquity — countless amateur renderings of blue-blobbed fields in which nestle Old Grist Mills, Limestone Cottages, and other Thomas Kincade “Painter of Light”-style appurtenances. Bluebonnet paintings are old-fashioned, omnipresent, unchallenging, and even a little embarrassing — the outsize decorative belt buckle fastened under the soft belly of Texas traditional arts. Not surprisingly, three works by Onderdonk hang in the current Presidential Administration’s Oval Office. There’s something a little … Republican about bluebonnet paintings.

On the other hand, even though I’m a Liberal, being a native South Texan I’ve always wanted a bluebonnet painting, in the same shameful way I’ve harbored a lifelong (and possibly genetically encoded) hankering for a taxidermied whitetail buck’s head or a stuffed rattlesnake. These were the things I’d look up on eBay, always late at night during blizzards, during the eight homesick years I spent in New York City.

The “American Impressionist” designation at first blush seems a little bit of a stretch. I think of Impressionism as an art-historical phenomenon that Texas didn’t have much truck with; it was mostly French, and as for American Impressionism, we left it to the likes of Mary Cassatt, who, well, actually lived and worked in Europe. Until this Witte show preview, I’d never heard of Julian or any other Onderdonk. Robert Rauschenberg I know about. And I’m proud of Texan artists Julian Schnabel, O’Neil Ford, Donald Judd (though he was Texan of the “not born here, but got here as soon as he could” variety), the Art Guys, Alberto Mijangos … hell, I’ll even gleefully own Tex Avery. But until now, my conscience has been bluebonnet-conflicted and Onderdonk-free.

McDermott explains to us that the Witte has on loan over 93 paintings by the San Antonian Julian Onderdonk, paintings that formed the Bluebonnets and Beyond exhibition which has traveled to the Witte from the Dallas Museum of Art. But McDermott asserts that only the Witte’s exhibition “tells the whole story” of the Onderdonk family, by adding to the Dallas collection 40 works by Julian’s father Robert Onderdonk, a noted San Antonio painter, and by Julian’s sister Eleanor Onderdonk, who was the Witte’s art curator from 1927 until 1958. Also, Julian’s wooden one-room painting studio was recently and permanently re-located from its original spot on French Place to the Witte’s campus. “Every board, every window, was moved over,” McDermott enthuses. “You can even see paint stains on the floor!”

From McDermott’s hands we’re passed into the care of Kate Sheerin, who co-curated the exhibition and acts as our docent through the galleries, which till last week housed an exhibition of Da Vinci machines and are still redolent of fresh paint. Sheerin herself moved over from the Dallas Museum of Art to a permanent position at the Witte, as the new Texas Art Curator. A native San Antonian, Sheerin grew up with several of Onderdonk’s canvases, which her parents, Larry and Betty Lou, have lent to the exhibit. Sheerin is young, attractive, and wears the fashion-forward blouse and modish eyewear of somebody for whom bluebonnet painting might also cause embarrassment, or at least giggling.

Sheerin is all serious business, though, and once my eyes adjust to the galleries full of alluring and surprisingly complex Onderdonk canvases, I can see why. Julian Onderdonk puts the “wild” in “wildflower.” Onderdonk’s bluebonnet paintings at once establish and defy subsequent tradition — his rolling fields and violet horizons, here thick with impasto, there delicately paint-drawn, don’t document bluebonnets so much as extol their memory, coming as close as any medium, including photography, to capturing the feeling of standing on a field’s edge in May. The paintings feel regional and universal — as Sheerin tells us, Julian Onderdonk rejected “the city, urbanity, people interacting in a tight space … he wanted just landscape in which the figure has all but disappeared.” Paintings like “Bluebonnets At Late Afternoon, Near La Grange” (1918) and “Field of Bluebonnets” (not dated) loom and vibrate. They depict the almost-phantasmagoric experience of all that violet-blue recalling heaven or dusk emanating up from the ground like tiny skyscrapers. It’s Texas as mythic landscape, as holy place of mysteries, an Eden under skies as layered as those of Turner.

Leading us through the galleries, Sheerin places Julian Onderdonk firmly in the canon of Impressionism, all right; he even studied in New York City with eminent painter William Merritt Chase, as had his Maryland-born father, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. There is a moving portrait of Julian by Chase, painted on his 19th birthday, which portrays him as serious-eyed, intense — surprisingly bohemian, somehow. Sheerin talks of his time in the city and on Long Island acting as a “lens through which to view Texas,” and describes his paintings of that period as “homesick fantasies.” She also hopes the exhibition points out how versatile he was, and it does. In addition to the bluebonnet paintings there are flower-free Texas landscapes of haunting power, such as 1912’s “Moonlight in South Texas,” in which the lights of a distant ranch house emerge like jewels, or “On The Guadalupe” from 1914, where he meditates on the green force of flowing water.

I had been provided with a press kit including a disk of images of Onderdonk’s paintings, but like most Impressionists, for whom the surface of the paint on canvas is half the point, these don’t photograph well — or, rather, photos don’t do them justice. Standing in front of them, each brushstroke meeting you face to face, they’re big and lush in every way. They’re about ideas as much as they’re about bluebonnets or sunlight; they could for all the world be illustrations of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, captioned: “standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Or as Sheerin would have it in her excellent essay in the show’s catalogue, “A painting … provides an expression of nature’s moods rather than a pure description, and the Impressionist style, with its vibrant colors and quick brushstrokes, was in harmony with the vibrations of the universe … ”

It’s fun, too, to see the delicate painted-on-ivory miniature portraits by Julian’s sister Eleanor, and the meticulous, high-Victorian solidity of Robert Jenkins Onderdonk’s landscapes, which, much more frequently than Julian’s, include human figures. Onderdonk pêre was a well-established painter and instructor in San Antonio, and like his son spent several years studying in New York before focusing on San Antonio subjects and students. Seeing Eleanor’s and Robert’s work helps to contextualize Julian’s, and are affectionate tributes to a remarkable San Antonio family, but it’s Julian’s canvases that stick with you.

The Witte has orchestrated a multimedia, family-friendly “laboratory” as part of the exhibit, and has commissioned actresses to present “Gallery Theater” performances as Eleanor Onderdonk. We media peeps were treated to “A Visit With Eleanor,” which featured a 20-something actress in a Carol Burnett Show-worthy wig portraying Eleanor in 1938, when she would have been in her mid-40s, talking wistfully about her brother’s genius and about the role of the Witte in San Antonio’s pre-SAMA art world. The effect of “A Visit With Eleanor” is a little off, and oddly touching, rather like something conjured up by Christopher Guest.

Also moving is Julian Onderdonk’s actual onsite studio, which we were allowed to peer into. There are, in fact, bluish paint stains on the floor. It wasn’t hard to imagine young Julian (who died at 40) standing there at his easel, seeing bluebonnets as if for the first time, over and over. •


VISUAL ART

Julian Onderdonk: Bluebonnets and Beyond

The Onderdonks: A Legacy of Texas Art
10am-5pm Mon-Sat;
10am-8pm Tue;
Noon-5pm Sun
Through Jan 11
$3 + general admission
Witte Museum,
3801 Broadway
(210) 357-1900
wittemuseum.org


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