Title: 58 Rambler  Artist: Robert Bechtle [American, b. 1932] Size: 30"x32" / oil on canvas
[The above image is Copyright 1996-1998 Brauer Museum of Art, all rights reserved, unless otherwise specified.]
Robert Bechtle, a Bay Area artist who taught for many years at San Francisco State University, is having a major career retrospective at SFMOMA. (If you have a Macromedia Flash player, check THIS out—it's awesome.) I have always loved Bechtle's work, but until recently I did not know why. As exemplified in the image above, he often painted the little cottages, once the dwellings of our middle class before real estate inflation placed them out of sight, with cars, quite ordinary cars, though now dated, parked in front. His work is remarkable, in many ways:
First if all, the scenes he depicts first appear to be banal to the point of absurdity. For us urban Californians, his cityscape tableaux, painted in a style critics have labeled "photorealistic," look like the small houses (cottages and bungalows) we might pass by every day while commuting or shopping. In fact, one of Bechtle's paintings depicts a pair of houses located 2 blocks from the place I work.
Rather than boring a viewer, as might be expected by the subject matter, Bechtle's paintings create a powerful emotion that, for me, is best expressed in the word awe, one of whose Google definitions is Fear: a profound emotion inspired by a deity; "the fear of God". From there it is but a small step to the premise of this blogpost, but there are even smaller intermediate steps.
At the onset of his retrospective show, Bechtle was interviewed by an art critic, and I had the good fortune of having been in the audience. Bechtle, at one point, described his paintings as iconic, and that got me thinking. Long before Apple popularized desktop icons, the word, Greek, referred to a religious painting, such as that of a saint. Says Google, An object representing something to be worshipped, one of many definitions. What happened next during the interview, was a question from a woman in the audience who said that the paintings made her feel intense anxiety (awe?).
And so on to the point: In what way could Bechtle's paintings be religious? There are no depictions of crucifixions, annunciations, or even Buddhas or Shivas. There are only little houses drab or cutesy, very ordinary people, and extremely undistinguished cars. But there is something else: the intensely warm golden light of the California sun. I don't believe the sun itself is depicted, just its light as it falls on the landscape. The, sun, of course, may be the oldest object of human awe since our species evolved. Don't underestimate Bechtle's ability to convey the power of the sun as an object of worship: see the original paintings, not wimpy reproductions. (The SFMOMA show ends June 5, 2005, which happens—heh, heh, heh—to be a Sunday.)
But there is much more to Bechtle than sunlight. (Van Gogh and Vermeer may have done sunlight better, along with other painters.) It is my contention that the very subject matter, the houses, cars and ordinary people, are themselves objects of worship, and as such have special meaning for us 20th and 21st century Americans, especially secular (that's right, secular) Americans. How could I dare to say such a thing? To find out, you will have to read Part 2.—JDL
Copyright ©2004-2005 Jonathan David Leavitt