Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art exhibit aims to restore the legacy of painter Colleen Browning


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You may not know the name Colleen Browning, but if Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art has its way you soon will, along with the rest of the country.

A precocious child and free-spirited adult, the talented British-born artist catapulted to prominence shortly after arriving in Manhattan in 1950. But her rising star was soon eclipsed by shifting art world tastes, as happened to so many realist painters of the time.

"She receives attention very early on, just as she comes to the United States," said museum executive director G. Gary Moyer. "Then, she gets wiped off the front page by the Abstract Expressionists."

A fortuitous mix of circumstances placed Southern Alleghenies in the position to champion Ms. Browning's reputation, and her work is currently being shown at all four museum locations.

Ms. Browning was born in 1918 in Shoeburyness, England, to Irish parents who were supportive of their daughter's artistic abilities and enrolled her in schools with developed art curriculums. By her midteens, she was exhibiting at the Society of Women Artists and at Whitechapel Art Gallery, both in London. During World War II, she was a mapmaker for the Royal Air Force, and postwar worked as a film studio set designer.

She met English novelist Geoffrey Wagner in 1948 while both were on vacation in Italy, and they became engaged. He accepted a teaching position at the University of Rochester, N.Y., and they were married in 1949. In 1950, they moved to Manhattan.

Articles about her work began appearing in popular magazines such as Time, Newsweek and Glamour, as well as in arts publications and The New York Times. She exhibited in the 1951 Whitney Museum of American Art annual, and the next year received a Popular Choice Award at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Prestigious fellowships followed at Yaddo and the McDowell Colony. In 1965, she was elected associate academician of the National Academy of Design, New York, and become full academician in 1966. In 1999, Ms. Browning was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and she died in New York in 2003.

In her latter years, several retrospective exhibitions of her work were held, the last in 1997 at Southern Alleghenies under director emeritus Michael Strueber, who wrote at the time: "Browning refused to compromise her artistic integrity and remained true to her personal vision. She helped to re-establish Realism as a significant presence in American art."

"Colleen Browning fell in love with this museum in the late '90s when she was exhibited here, and the museum fell in love with her," Mr. Moyer said.

Mr. Wagner died in 2006, and two years later his estate contacted the newly appointed Mr. Moyer with a question that was also a challenge. "If I gave you a million dollars today, how would you use it to preserve, protect and promote the artwork of Colleen Browning?"

Mr. Moyer responded with a proposal a week later and six months after that was called to a meeting in New York. Half of the estate was given to the National Academy of Design, which has named a gallery after the artist.

Southern Alleghenies received "all of the artwork and all of the memorabilia, in addition to funding from the estate," Mr. Moyer said, including "eight or nine boxes of archival material." The museum is the chief repository of Browning's work, according to Scott Dimond, Southern Alleghenies curator for visual arts and exhibitions curator.

To honor its commitment, the museum commissioned a book about Ms. Browning, "Colleen Browning: The Enchantment of Realism," by scholar Philip Eliasoph ($63.60) and held a Browning symposium last month. The exhibition "Colleen Browning: A Brush With Magic" was launched in Ireland and stopped at the National Academy of Design before opening at Southern Alleghenies in expanded form. The exhibition will travel for the next year-and-a-half. Future plans include a gallery dedicated to her legacy and making the symposium an annual event.

Since becoming a Browning center, the museum has received donations of her works, including a lithograph from the 1960s that complements nine received from the estate. Another gift is one of the most evocative paintings at Loretto, "First Communion," showing a young girl in white communion dress within a garish green interior. She holds a bouquet of white and red flowers with trailing red ribbons, perhaps a reference to the child's eminent maturation to spiritual and physical womanhood, or to repugnant abuse.

"A man was closing his Manhattan apartment and moving to Florida. He called and asked if we wanted this painting," Mr. Moyer said.

Loretto exhibits Ms. Browning's wide range of style and subject, including academic paintings of landscapes and peasants inspired by travels in South America; early depictions of Harlem street scenes; the previously exhibited signature work "Picture of a Painting of the Great Circus Parade"; a series of unusual self-portraits contained within the protective frame of an umbrella, made after her face was slashed by an attacker in her New York home; images of fortune tellers; and paintings like "The Dream," of 1996, probably inspired by thoughts of mortality.

Works on paper at Ligonier bring the artist closer to the viewer, with figural sketches, fanciful drawings of exaggerated worlds made in her early teens, unique interpretations of religious standards like the "Creation" or "Resurrection" from her early 20s, and admirably choreographed scenes of people building stage sets. Archival material includes charming books made by Ms. Browning at ages "9 and 3/4" and 12, and photographs of an attractive young woman.

It's laudable that Southern Alleghenies has taken on this artist, who has already proven to be a worthy subject. How exciting her life and work ultimately turn out to be will be revealed over time as archives are explored and artwork is discovered in collections private and public.

"Colleen Browning: Magic Realist" is at SAMA Loretto through Oct.13. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday (814-472-3920). "Colleen Browning: The Early Years," SAMA Ligonier Valley, through Nov. 4; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (724-238-6015). "Colleen Browning: Illustrator and Printmaker," SAMA Johnstown, through Oct. 6; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (814-269-7234). "Colleen Browning: Drawings," SAMA Altoona, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday (814-946-4464). Admission is free at all venues; www.sama-art.org.

artarchitecture

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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