I was first introduced to the paintings of Morris Graves 30-some years ago in a college Art History class. The painting above is titled “Bird Depressed by the Length of the Winter of 1944.” (It is not a good image–sorry. That is a bird there in the center of the painting, and he does look pretty down.) Talk about the power of a good title. At first I laughed, then I wondered what it meant and then I knew I wanted to see more of Morris Graves’ birds.
Ironically, (because I didn’t live in Portland when I first fell in love with it) this painting is owned by the Portland Art Museum and I can now see it in person. This is what the museum has to say about Graves and this painting:
” Morris Graves, who spent much of his life in and around Seattle, was little influenced by the developments of modernism. Instead, he looked to the natural world of the Pacific Northwest and to the arts and philosophies of Asia for inspiration. His early interest in nature, especially birds, has been an abiding one. Graves’ birds act as manifestations of an inner reality, representative of what Graves calls the “inner eye.” Bird Depressed by the Length of the Winter of 1944 belongs to a series of paintings Graves made in that year addressing the demoralizing effects of World War II. As he recalled later, that winter seemed interminable, as if the war would never end. “
In so many ways I think of Graves as the quintessential Northwest painter and perhaps I identify because of that. His work seems to capture, for me, a melancholy and darkness that lurks in the weather and forests of the Northwest. I have been thinking about him lately because I have been thinking about the differences between representational art and abstract art. While Graves work is “representational” it is far from “realistic”. I am often frustrated, especially in the quiltart world that realism is so highly prized in representational art and it seems the more lifelike and photograph-like the work, the more awe it inspires. I love that Graves’ birds do not look like real birds, that they stand in for feelings and moods and probably represent his alter ego. See what you make of them. Here are some samples.
If you are not familiar with Morris Graves, there is a lot available to see on the web and, of course, he painted other subjects besides birds. I recommend his work. It never fails to engage me both visually and intellectually. Here is his painting entitled “Oregon”.