A Q&A with BYU art history professor about the Museum of Art’s current exhibit
For the first time in 25 years, BYU’s Museum of Art is temporarily displaying almost all the works from its large collection of paintings by Maynard Dixon (1875–1946), the famed early 20th-century landscape painter best known for his beautiful depictions of the American Southwest.
BYU art history professor Kenneth Hartvigsen curated the current exhibition, “Searching for Home,” bringing many Dixon paintings out of storage to display alongside paintings on loan, and organizing the gallery based on themes from Dixon’s poetry. University Communications’ Christie Allen met with Hartvigsen to discuss Dixon’s life and work and the inspiration behind the exhibit.
Christie Allen: BYU has the largest museum collection of Maynard Dixon artwork in the world. What’s the story behind that?
Kenneth Hartvigsen: In the 1930s, the dean of the then-College of Commerce, Herald R. Clark, felt strongly that BYU students needed to learn from world-class art. He saw a Maynard Dixon painting in a magazine and fell in love with it. So he went to San Francisco, met with Dixon and basically offered to buy everything available. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and Dixon was in a position where he needed to sell some work. According to the (possibly apocryphal) story, they sealed the deal at Dixon’s favorite bar, Dixon with a glass of whiskey and Clark with a glass of milk.
CA: Why was Dixon drawn to painting the American West?
KH: Dixon was one of many artists in the first half of the 20th century who was engaging with a kind of myth of the American West and Southwest as untouched wilderness. But from my perspective, one of the things that sets Dixon apart from his contemporaries is that he was emotionally moved by his experiences in the region.
The desert was a place Dixon returned to when he needed strength, when he felt like he needed to be reborn. Dixon lived in San Francisco for most of his life, and he would periodically leave California and journey to New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Often he would go on these trips during times of personal difficulty. For example, when his first marriage dissolved, he went into a deep depression and went to the Southwest to paint; he returned again when his second marriage was breaking up, and from that period we see one of the great peaks of his painting career.
CA: How did Dixon’s background figure into his love for the desert?
KH: Dixon’s father had been a Confederate soldier; the family was in ruins after the war, so they left the South and went to California, where Dixon was born in 1875. I think it’s important to remember that Dixon grew up in an America that had just been recently stitched back together, and he very well may have felt like he didn’t fully belong where he was living. He spent several years in New York illustrating stories about the West for newspapers, after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 leveled his studio in California. But he felt like it was kind of phony — he decided he’d rather go back west and paint the story that he knew as opposed to someone else’s story. So he went back to California, but he moved around several times, until he permanently moved to the Southwest in the last five years of his life.
CA: Dixon was also a poet, and the exhibit includes many of his poems. How do Dixon’s paintings and poetry complement each other?
KH: One of the reasons I wanted to include the poetry in the exhibition is that the poetry gives us a better understanding of why this landscape was so important to Dixon and what he felt when he stood and looked over the Western expanse. His poetry shows that he was drawn to the idea of painting the West even before personally experiencing it. When he was a very young man, before he had taken any long excursions into the Southwest, he was already writing these poems, saying, “I’m tired of living in the city, the Western landscape is waiting for me.”
CA: Although Dixon is best known for landscapes, one of the best-known Dixon pieces in the BYU Museum of Art is a portrait, “Forgotten Man.” How did Dixon begin painting people in the Great Depression?
KH: One of the things that I wanted to do with this exhibition is to show the range of Dixon’s career. He’s most famous for landscapes, but he was a skilled painter of the human figure, including portraits of many Native Americans he met. When he and his second wife, Dorothea Lange, were returning to California from a trip to New Mexico in early 1932, they saw migrant workers walking from town to town on desert highways with bedrolls on their backs. It was like seeing “The Grapes of Wrath.” And they both later mentioned that this moment was a profound realization for them of how bad things had gotten in the Depression. As a photographer, Lange began working for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal program, to capture Americans’ experience in the Depression. She encouraged Dixon to come along with her and paint what he saw. From about 1932 to 1936, he painted these social realist paintings from what he witnessed in San Francisco.
CA: Why is the exhibition called “Searching for Home?”
KH: Dixon had a whole section of his career where he painted different kinds of houses. I love these paintings, and I was trying to make sense of why he has all of them. Then I read a story about how when he was finally moving from San Francisco, he told his friends he thought he’d write an autobiography. As a joke he said, “I’m going to call my autobiography “Other Men’s Houses,” because he had never owned a house. That inspired me to see the houses in a different light, to realize that was something he envied. Looking at all his work, it gave me an inkling that that’s what he’d been doing his whole life — he was looking for a place to belong.
CA: What should visitors to the exhibit look for especially?
KH: A lot of people in our area fall in love with Dixon’s paintings because the locations they depict feel familiar. I hope people also recognize that they were more than just beautiful landscapes to Dixon. He wasn’t a religious man, but to him, these were spiritual places where he felt you could be transformed. I also think it’s important for people to know that he was a masterful painter. People may have seen reproductions, but when they see his works in person — the subtlety of his colors, or how he’s moving the paint around the canvas with his brush strokes — I think people will be impressed.
The exhibition will be open through September 23, 2023. The accompanying catalog, “Maynard Dixon, Searching for a Home: Painted and Poetic Imagination in the American West,” was edited by Hartvigsen, with an introduction by BYU professor James Swensen.