Conventions for Abstract Thoughts

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Conventions for Abstract Thoughts

In 1917, the year that the United States entered World War I, Burchfield made a series of symbolic drawings that catalogued emotions, expressing abstract thoughts in semiabstract forms, which he referred to as "conventions." The conventions are part nature, part fantasy, and they tend to represent dark emotions, such as "dangerous brooding," "muted sorrow," and "fear, morbidness and melancholy." (From Heat Waves in a Swamp or..."the healthy glamour of everyday life", Texts by Robert Gober, assisted by Becky Kinder)

Reanalysis of Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night shows more fully how Burchfield used his newly developed symbolic pictographs to illustrate not only his childhood fears but also his adult distaste for religious zealotry, provoked by a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher, his evangelical grandfather, and the example of his late, unreligious father.

The painting depicts the First Baptist Church, located only a few blocks away from Burchfield’s home. The steeple is a monstrous bird with vacant eyes of "Imbecility" and raised eyebrows of "Aimless Abstraction (Hypnotic Intensity)". The bell tower’s puffed-out white breast swirls with black and blue "Fear"-provoking peals, a shadow of "Morbidness (Evil)" inside its belfry. "Fear" floats at the pinnacle instead of a cross. Black rain bleeds thickly from the clouds, which are gigantic hooking swirls of "Fear" radiating terrifying sound waves. "Morbidness" and "Fear" dominate the roofline, windows, and door of a dark house meant "to represent human evil and misery." The cowering house on the left shudders–is door marred by the mark of "Insanity." Balancing forces of good and evil, the white house contains a single lit candle and a decorated Christmas tree, but the curtain’s diagonal hem forms the pattern of "Melancholy/Meditation/Memory of" the time, Burchfield found it difficult to be nonconformist in his small hometown. Through the symbolism in his painting, he was able to reject church dogma, think independently about personal ethics, and express emotions associated with criticism and doubt. (From Conventions for Abstract Thoughts, Nancy Weekly)


Tags: charles burchfield, heat waves in a swamp