Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Drama of Dust & Sandstorms

The other day in Santa Fe we got an Emergency Message on our phones from whomever sends out these things. It said, “High Winds and Dust Storms. No visibility. Pull over to the side of the road. Turn off your engine and turn off your headlights.” Happily, we were at home. We just closed our windows, though the temperature outside had reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and marveled at the swinging trees, hoping no branches would fall on the house. The only difference between our “high desert” dust storms and desert sandstorms is the size of the particles the wind picks up from the surface of the dry earth.

There are so many threats these days from environmental phenomena in different parts of the United States, but they are not new nor unique to this country. The first thing I thought of was “The Dust Bowl” of the 1930’s caused by high winds during an excessively dry period. The winds carried dust in the region from Texas to Nebraska asphyxiating people and livestock, and ruining crops.

The dust bowl offered a great subject for artists. I discovered on line a record of the painting “Drought” by Joseph Paul Vorst (1897-1947) sold at auction in 2014. It illustrates the devastating impact of a dust storm in Boise, Oklahoma in 1935. Vorst has been credited as the most significant Latter-day Saint painter of his time. He was born and educated in Germany and came to the States in 1930. His work has been exhibited in many major American museums including the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the White House!


The drama of dust storms has attracted artists from other countries as well. A Hungarian artist, Peter Zelei captured a dust storm in a photograph taken in 2017. Though the image may be manipulated, as its dimensions of 27.56 inches square, it must envelope the viewer in the actual experience. I might start out with this photo as the introduction to my imaginary exhibition.


A pen, wash and chalk drawing In the Metropolitan Museum by the British artist William West (1801-1861) ”A Column of Oriental Travelers Scattered by a Dust Storm” suggests his biblical scene of Israelites passing through the wilderness preceded by a pillar of clouds. Looking at details there seem to be people and a camel running from the whirlwinds termed dust devils.


Desert sandstorms provided a popular subject for Orientalist painters.
Ludwig Hans Fischer (1848-1915) was an Austrian artist who received a grant in 1875 to travel to the Middle East and Palestine where he recorded his impressions in watercolor sketches. This watercolor that was sold at auction in 2019 titled “The Khamsin” (1891), evokes the effect of that dry, hot, sandy wind of the Middle East.


Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844-1905) an Italian artist was very well connected. He knew Queen Victoria and received commissions from the British Royal family. His extensive travels included Egypt and Syria and offered the opportunity to view and paint its sandstorms like this “Camel Train in a Sandstorm.” His work can be found in the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Dahesh in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago as well as museums in Qatar and Rome.


Switching continents, Andres Vivo (1955-) is from Uruguay where he still lives and works. He studied there with several well-respected Uruguayan artists. I found no evidence of his travel and there are no deserts in Uruguay, so I assume that this scene is from his imagination. He does say, “Painting the sea and sky provides me with the perfect excuse to express myself in my love of color and bold strokes.” I found this image in the Saatchi Gallery in Los Angeles.


Returning to the U.S. there is a work I wish I could have owned, an oil on paper by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) in the Detroit Institute of Arts. It symbolizes the westward expansion when people travelled for opportunity, from the Louisiana Purchase making swathes of land available for settlement, to the gold rush. In the process buffalo herds were decimated. Bierstadt made several trips out west, his first was in 1859 with Colonel Frederick Lander along the Oregon trail to South Pass, which is today in Wyoming. He found the land so exiting and painted great panoramic works to record the newest part of our relatively new country. Although he painted two large-scale canvases of the subject, “The Last of the Buffalo” 1888, this single figure “Buffalo in a Sandstorm” is a more poignant icon.


Depictions of the dust and sandstorms are romantic representations of a world one would rather not experience first-hand.