Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Birger Sandzén: An Illustrated Biography by Emory Lindquist

A befitting monument to Kansas’s greatest painter
Birger Sandzén (1871-1954) is widely regarded as the preeminent artist in the history of the state of Kansas. Born and educated in Sweden, he emigrated to America in 1894 to accept a teaching position at Bethany College in Lindsborg. He taught there for over 50 years, and remained in Lindsborg until his death. He had a profound impact on the development of the arts in Kansas, yet his influence spread far beyond the borders of the state. He produced a prodigious output of paintings and prints which were exhibited both nationally and internationally.

Despite its subtitle, this volume is not a biography in the traditional sense. It is a retrospective tribute in which biography plays a small part. The events and accomplishments of Sandzén’s life are not related chronologically, but rather organized thematically into a series of essays. The first three chapters are biographical in nature, but successive chapters focus on individual aspects of his career such as teaching method, travel, family and friends, painting technique, printmaking, critical response to his work, and the establishment of the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery at Bethany College. In the treatment of his subject, author Emory Lindquist is relentlessly laudatory. He has not come to bury Sandzén, but to praise him. From reading this book one would suspect that Sandzén never committed a sin, no one ever had anything bad to say about him, and the only hardship he ever faced was death itself. Two mind-numbing chapters of excerpts from exhibition reviews cite heaps worth of adulation, garnished with less than a handful of sentences even remotely critical of the artist’s work.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book in spite of its lack of objectivity. What Lindquist does well is capture Sandzén's infectious excitement and enthusiasm for art and education. Despite isolating himself in a remote outpost on the prairies, Sandzén managed to execute works of art that rivaled those produced in the great art centers of the world and earned the respect of critics worldwide. Though he devoted himself to interpreting the landscapes of Kansas, the Rocky Mountains, and the Southwest, he never became an American regionalist painter. He built his own individual style upon a tripod of Nordic traditions, French impressionism, and German expressionism. Sandzén brought high artistic and intellectual standards to a small town in central Kansas, and with the help of friends and colleagues established at Lindsborg his own little Parnassus on the Plains.

This volume is heavily illustrated with both historical photos of the artist and pictures of his work. To those unfamiliar with Sandzén’s art, his painting style could best be described as a combination of Van Gogh with a fatter brush and Monet on steroids. No printed page could ever do justice to Sandzén’s brilliant colors, but the 49 color plates included here succeed admirably. The 26 black and white figures reproduce his prints and drawings absolutely beautifully. In addition to presenting a lovely gallery of the artist’s work, this book is the most authoritative resource we have on Sandzén and his inspiring accomplishments as an artist and educator. For that, it is a book to be respected and treasured.

Landscape with Four Trees, 1920, oil on canvas, 35.625 x 47.75"

Hour of Splendor, Bryce Canyon, Utah, 1928, oil on canvas, 80 x 60"

Republican River, 1945, linoleum block print, 16 x 12"

For more information on Birger Sandzén, and more images of his work, see the web site of the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery at Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS:

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