By Kathy Day
Bram Dijkstra just couldn’t decide whether to pursue art or literature in college, but a scholarship in literature made up his mind for him. Even so, the UCSD professor emeritus of comparative literature didn’t let art fall by the wayside.
Over the years, the Del Mar resident has written 10 books, all of them combining his love for the visual arts and he has curated a half dozen exhibitions, including one currently showing at the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego History Center featuring the work of Charles Reiffel. The Cincinatti-born artist is known as an American post-impressionist and a representative of California’s plein-air school. Ariel Plotek is the co-curator of the exhibit that continues through Feb. 10 at the San Diego Museum of Art, and through March 10 at the History Center..
Dijkstra became interested in Reiffel’s work 30 years ago when he and his wife, literary agent Sandra Dijkstra, saw their first Reiffel painting. It inspired Bram Dijkstra to begin researching Reiffel and, as he put it, “in the long run, he became sort of a hobby.” Dijkstra will share his insights during two talks associated with the current exhibit.
Split between the two venues in Balboa Park, the exhibit showcases the work of the man who has been called the American van Gogh, but who later was labeled “too modern.”
“People out here don’t know that he had a very substantial career on the East Coast,” Dijkstra said, adding that Reiffel often won prizes over such well known artists of the 1910s and 1920s as George Bellows and Charles Hawthorne.
During that period, the artist worked “essentially in the dominant style of tonalism,” he said, explaining that the artists were trying to capture the moods of the atmospheric conditions in subdued colors that simulated nature. Reiffel went off to Europe for a time, where he studied with Carl Marr. When Reiffel returned to the U.S. he eventually settled in Silvermine, Conn., where he became “a true landscape painter.”
In 1913, it is likely Reiffel would have encountered the works of van Gogh, Cezanne and Matisse at the Armory Show, Dijkstra said. “Immediately following, his palette brightened.”
In his essay titled “Charles Reiffel: Dancing with Nature,” Dijkstra wrote, “Throughout his life, driven by the pantheistic undercurrent of the transcendentalist movement, Reiffel believed that nature must be central to any form of artistic expression.”
As you look at his paintings, Dijkstra said, “you see the earth pulsating.”
Through his use of “long, vermicelli-style lines,” Reiffel would weave together colors like a cloth of many different colors. Like Van Gogh, Dijkstra added, “he liked to break apart nature.”
Reiffel came to San Diego after he was invited to the Pan-American exhibition in Los Angeles. After that show, his work was placed in San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery.
In San Diego, he became enamored with the back country, toning down his expressionist qualities, but his popularity did not match his success on the East Coast.
As Dijkstra wrote in his essay, “…The raw emotion of his encounters with San Diego’s back country seems to have scared (the public) off.”
Dijkstra said, “No matter how good he was, he couldn’t sell his work (here).”
As the Great Depression set in, the situation worsened, so Reiffel was thankful when the Works Progress Administration arts project hired him and helped him stay alive, Dijkstra said. The part of the exhibit at the History Center features “four absolutely amazing, astonishing murals that were done for the schools,” said Dijkstra. Fortunately, he added, Bruce Kamerling, the center’s art curator, made sure they were protected when they were taken down in the 1970s for earthquake safety reasons.
Those who are planning to see the Reiffel exhibit must be certain to see both sections of it, Dijkstra advised. They would miss a significant part of the artist’s work if they skipped the part at the museum or the works at the history center. The exhibit, marking the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth, features more than 90 works, including “primarily oils on canvas but also watercolors, gouaches, and drawings in both pencil and wax crayons,” according to a SDMA press release.