BENNINGTON -- Almost 75 years after she became an international sensation for her paintings of rural eastern New York and southern Vermont, the art of Grandma Moses has a new home at the Bennington Museum.
"Part of my vision is to offer exhibitions so varied that everyone will find something of interest here and to be constantly changing" said Robert Wolterstorff, the executive director of the museum, in a press release, "not for the sake of change itself, but changing in order to be a vital, living organization, constantly relevant to the public and a changing world."
With this commitment to evolution in mind, the Bennington Museum will re-open this weekend with a lineup of new and renovated exhibits. Among all the changes they've made since closing its doors in January, curator Jamie Franklin and the museum staff will unveil the newly reconfigured Grandma Moses gallery, now called "Anna Mary Robertson ‘Grandma' Moses: Painting the Promised Land."
Across the border from Moses' home in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., the museum holds the largest public collection of her paintings in the world, and the gallery has long been the museum's flagship attraction.
"There's little argument that Grandma Moses is our most popular collection, and the thing for which we are best known" said Franklin.
Bennington Museum regulars can expect the new Moses gallery to look much cleaner and include some significant new additions when the museum re-opens this weekend. Along with new introductory text, the gallery has been repainted, new walls have been added to hold more pieces, and four of Moses' most famous paintings have been added to the gallery.
On loan from the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, which has represented Grandma Moses since the beginning of her fame, these additions include "Sugaring Off," one of Moses' most recognizable works and the first of her paintings to be reproduced in color, "Hoosick Valley (From the Window)," "In Harvest Times," and "Taking in the Laundry," one of the few dour works in her otherwise largely optimistic body of work. With its dramatic stormy sky and wind-swept trees, "Taking in the Laundry" is also one of the gallery's most visually impressive paintings.
The curators selected these as some of Moses' best-known and loved works, and also works that reflect recurring themes in the artist's work, like the harvest and other crucial moments of farm life.
Moses, who passed away in 1961 at the age of 101, has always been a local legend in the areas of eastern New York and southwestern Vermont.
She was first recognized for her paintings at the age of 78, and she became a national celebrity in her later life. Mademoiselle magazine even named her "young woman of the year" at age 88. By 1946, Moses' artwork had appeared on more than 16 million Hallmark cards.
After being "discovered" by an art collector in 1938, Moses had her first solo show in New York in 1940 and, by 1945, she had become a national celebrity. Against the events of that era, including the Great Depression and the world-wide explosion of World War II, Moses' depictions of simple, idyllic country life resonated with the nervous American public.
As Franklin points out, the underlying cultural reasons for Moses' enthusiastic reception in the ‘40s haven't completely faded away in today's world.
"In the history of our country, we're always in some form of turmoil," he said, "and one of the core ideas of Grandma Moses' work is looking back so that we can seek solace in the present and hope for the future."
But while the museum has a responsibility to tell eager visitors the story of Grandma Moses, Franklin said, the new gallery aims to emphasize the artist's artistic skill and her impressive body of work over the sensational story of her fame.
"It's the idea of getting past the ‘grandma' and getting past where she lived" Franklin said. "Those are all parts of her story, but it's important to look at the art and think about what she was going, how she was doing it and why she was doing it."
Franklin hopes that the new exhibition will show visitors that, despite her unique personal story, Moses approached her painting like any other great artist. While she focused primarily on agrarian scenes and landscapes, her personal experiences and emotions factored heavily into the way she interpreted this subject matter in her works. This idea, Franklin points out, places Moses within the defined premises of modern art.
The new Moses gallery will re-open on Friday, Feb. 14, along with several other new exhibitions at the Museum, including a collection of new acquisitions by self-taught artists and an exhibition of works by Karl Mullen, a regional artist who is also self-taught.
"Hopefully people will, consciously or unconsciously, start questioning the meaning of terms like "self-taught," "folk," "primitive," or "naive," and what distinguishes these artists from other artists" said Franklin. "Ultimately, the answer is, in my opinion, nothing."
Jack McManus can be reached on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go ...
What: Community Day
When: Saturday, Feb. 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Bennington Museum, 75 Main St., Bennington
Information: (802) 447-1571 or www.benningtonmuseum.com
Gallery talk on Grandma Moses gallery renovation with the curator, 2 p.m.
Family-friendly activities in the Moses Schoolhouse and Ada Paresky Education Center