The paintings of Earl Cunningham, a self-taught visionary artist who bridges the generation of such early twentieth-century folk painters as Grandma Moses and that of today’s more popular “outsiders,” have received increasing attention in recent years. Though Cunningham exhibited sporadically in his home state of Florida, he only came to wider national attention nine years after his death. His posthumous career was launched in 1986 by Robert Bishop, the late director of New York’s Museum of American Folk Art, with an eleven-city museum tour. Last year, the High Museum in Atlanta sponsored a still ongoing traveling exhibition, which is accompanied by a full-scale monograph by Robert Hobbs. The interest generated by these more recent exhibitions and the publication suggest that the time has come to assess Cunningham within the context of the wider non-academic tradition that Moses helped bring to prominence.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) was easily old enough to be the mother of Earl Cunningham (1893-1977), but the two artists were nonetheless to some degree products of a shared era and sensibility. Both directly engaged the American dream as it was perceived in the transitional decades of the early twentieth century. Both valued hard work and self-sufficiency, and both deployed the native landscape to memorialize a quickly vanishing rural past. If Moses and Cunningham on one level shared similar ideals, however, they diverged in their encounters with reality, and as a result the emotional tenor of their art is distinctly different.
Neither Moses nor Cunningham had easy lives, particularly by present-day standards. Born to relatively poor farming families (Moses in upstate New York, Cunningham in Maine), each was forced by economic necessity to leave home at a young age. Moses went to work as a “hired girl” on a neighbor’s farm when she was twelve, and Cunningham, at thirteen, became an itinerant peddler. Both showed an early interest in art, but neither could afford to devote serious time to painting until relatively late in life, when changing personal and financial circumstances granted them more latitude. Both, too, were undoubtedly encouraged by the American folk-art “boom” that began in the 1930s and peaked with the discovery of Grandma Moses in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Though hardly a stranger to tragedy, Moses bore her share of adversity with relative equanimity. “No great loss without some small gain,” her father said of a violent storm that flooded their home but left a residue of silt that could be used as house paint. “We had to take the bitter with the sweet always,” Moses remarked following the deaths, within six years, of two brothers and a sister. Illness, fire and weather--the perennial scourges of rural existence--plagued the artist all her life. Following her marriage, in 1887, to Thomas Salmon Moses, she left home for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where the couple hoped to take advantage of farming opportunities in the Reconstruction-era South. When times were tough, Moses pitched in by churning sweet butter and making potato chips to sell or trade. Five of her ten children were stillborn or died in infancy. Nevertheless, the family pulled together, returning to the New York hamlet of Eagle Bridge in 1905 with enough money to buy a farm. Following her husband’s death in 1927, Moses turned increasingly to painting, and her phenomenal late-life artistic career--which effectively started with her first one-woman show at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1940--has something of a fairy-tale quality to it. The paintings that made her world-famous by the time of her death at the age of 101 betray no hint of the troubles she had endured.
By comparison, Cunningham seems to have been perpetually out of sorts with his environment, and especially during his early years, he preferred to keep on the move. From peddling he progressed to sailing, traveling the East Coast on the large cargo schooners that were a principal means of interstate trade in the period before World War I. Even after his marriage to Iva Moses [no relation to Anna Mary] in 1915, he continued to roam, first on a houseboat and later in a camper truck. During the 1920s, the couple earned their living scavenging relics, coral and crabs in Florida and bringing them north to Maine to sell. Periodically Cunningham would settle down, attempting at one point to farm in Maine and, during World War II, raising chickens in South Carolina for the U.S. Army. However, his stabs at stability appear to have been doomed by an irascible temperament: he quarreled with his family in Maine and eventually separated from his wife. By 1949, when he established a curio shop called the Over Fork Gallery in St. Augustine, Florida, he had grown distinctly paranoid. Dubbed the “Crusty Dragon of St. George Street,” he became convinced that the local historic preservation committee was out to burn down his shop or even murder him. Despite often erratic behavior, he managed to sustain his business and devote significant attention to painting, in part due to the generosity of his landlady, Theresia Paffe, who subsidized his rent and dreamed of one day marrying him. Cunningham nonetheless became increasingly embittered; he died by his own hand at the age of eighty-four.
Both Cunningham and Moses have been called “memory painters,” somewhat erroneously. Neither was interested in simply recalling the past, but rather in sustaining a dialogue between past and present. Though Moses is known for her portrayals of “old timey” subjects such as buggies and horse-drawn sleighs, these vignettes are rendered with a degree of abstraction capable of alluding to the past only in a highly symbolic manner. By comparison, Moses’ depiction of the landscape--its seasons and weather patterns--is intensely nuanced and evocative. This combination of extreme abstraction and keenly observed realism serves to link the past with the present and in the process to guarantee the future. The message, concisely put, is that some things do not change. Even as she combines elements from disparate historical eras, Moses subordinates them to a sense of enduring order.
Cunningham, too, is concerned with order in his work, but his is not order born of a feeling of natural harmony and submission to a higher, greater force. Rather, he is driven by the obsessive-compulsive’s need to control a world most frequently seen as dangerous and capricious. All Cunningham’s paintings center on the great void represented by the sea and sky, often painted the same hue and occasionally even merged together. His sense of unease is vividly heralded in his almost invariable reliance on jarring complementary colors (yellow and violet, red and green, orange and blue) and his recurrent (though not universal) transformation of Florida’s lush tropical foliage into a near wasteland of barren and broken trees. The encircling land mass and its dogged human embellishments (little fences and rows of flowers, jaunty lighthouses and cottages) to some extent provide what Robert Hobbs calls a “safe harbor.” However, it is evident that Cunningham’s real heroes are the great navigators, the ultimate masters of the void: the Norse sailors who supposedly discovered the New World, the native American populations in their birch-bark canoes, the coastal seamen of the artist’s earlier life, and even the multitudinous shorebirds, which far outnumber any other sort of creature depicted in his work. Whereas Moses’ naturalistic landscape serves to provide a sense of continuity, Cunningham’s juxtaposition of incongruous elements is given a purely personal symbolic context by the artist’s unnatural palette.
In today’s postmodern world, we have grown accustomed to the creation of novel realities in which objects are recycled with little regard to their original purpose or meaning. Cunningham’s mental landscape thus feels strangely comfortable. We have, furthermore, lost faith in the intrinsic harmonies of nature that Moses so ardently cherished. Cunningham’s fears are more familiar to us than her hopes. Moses still believed in the American dream (and in fact achieved it in her own life), whereas Cunningham’s paintings suggest that the dream is illusory. Certainly neither artist is “right” or “wrong,” but the contrast in their paintings is poignant evidence of the radical alteration in our nation’s self-image that has occurred between the first and the second halves of the twentieth century.