For those interested in outsider art, Wisconsin is a fortunate place to be. The Kohler Foundation has taken the lead in preserving outsider art around the state, including Ernest Hüpeden's Painted Forest murals in Valton at the Modern Woodmen of America lodge. The Kohler Foundation gifted that site to Edgewood College, also a leading Wisconsin resource in the preservation of outsider art.
And now, with the completion of its new Visual and Theatre Arts Center and its Edgewood College Gallery, Edgewood can bring more artwork to the public. It's fitting that the inaugural exhibition in the new gallery space is Ernest Hüpeden: Beyond the Forest, running from August 24 through September 27. Curated by gallery director Paul Baker Prindle, this show features most of the mysterious itinerant painter's other known works.
The works come from the collection of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, Edgewood and private collectors. Most are landscapes of the Driftless area of Wisconsin and show more detail, a finer hand and a more benevolent point of view than the dark, offbeat, visionary scenes of the Painted Forest murals.
"My approach has been that Hüpeden brings the immigrant perspective of the people he paints," says Prindle. "There's a new American identity, tied to the land." In Wisconsin, working the land was particularly important.
"They're beautiful landscapes, but, he was also recording these new, successful farmsteads," says Prindle.
Even each outbuilding is carefully depicted, as well as the number of livestock: "It's a record of their success as farmers. It was important to his patrons."
He almost always includes a windmill in his scenes.
"The Valley Where the Bluebirds Sing," probably the best example of Hüpeden's work as a traditional landscape artist, is signed and dated (September 28, 1911) as is most of the work in the show. Although who painted it and when is clear, there are other challenges. Conservation, in this case, is complicated by the fact that the work was painted on mattress ticking, stretched on the frame. Prindle takes the painting off the wall and turns it around. Sure enough, the blue and gray stripes of mattress ticking. Other works are painted on board, tar paper, cardboard and more mattress fabric -- underscoring that Hüpeden worked quickly and with whatever materials were available.
Another painting was found in a woodshed in Ontario, Wisconsin, where it had been hiding for more than 30 years, after residing the owner's mother's attic for many more. It was "covered with spider webs and bird droppings," says Prindle.
The largest work in the exhibit is painted on boards. It was actually a mural at a lumberyard office near LaValle, and the boards of the wall itself were salvaged after a flood. This wall-size work has a couple of boards missing, but remains mostly intact. It shows a train and work going on at a prosperous lumberyard. Prindle notes the depiction of the "rising middle class."
Prindle has done a good deal of sleuthing to flesh out the artist's life story and track down other works by Hüpeden, from running ads in local newspapers to following a sparse trail of official records. Some clues come by word of mouth.
"There's a story that he got a citation in La Crosse for selling small erotic paintings," says Prindle, but due to a fire in the records storage in La Crosse, that's been a dead end so far.
A page of notes dated 1982, from when Sauk County was caretaker of the Painted Forest, lists known or suspected Hüpeden works and their owners, with some of their addresses and phone numbers. But by the time Prindle started trying to contact those people, many had passed away. He has cold-called people with the same last names who are listed in the phone book and ultimately has located many of the works on that list. Ten remain missing, including paintings on a pie tin, a sea chest and a bottle. Frustratingly, there are even photos of these works, but for whatever reason, they weren't acquired or couldn't be acquired at the time the images were taken. Prindle figures he spends about 10 to 40 hours a week working on tracing Hüpeden and his work.
One of the bits of received wisdom about Hüpeden is that he was an untrained artist, but Prindle has his doubts about that. He's discovered that when Hüpeden lived in Germany, before coming to the United States, he made his home in Neuruppin, near Brandenburg.
"We say he's untrained, but we don't really know. When you look at his wires." Prindle points to a fragile streak of paint in a farmscape that indicates top of a fence. "It's like how the Dutch painters communicate lace. He had to be looking at art. He was living outside of Berlin. He was absorbing [traditions of] Northern European painting." In his immigration papers, his occupation was listed as "merchant," says Prindle. "He probably had a decent education. It's hard to say he was untrained."
There's also a 20-year gap in Hüpeden's history, from when he would have landed in the United States to when he appears in the Midwest.
"The lore is that he brought his paintbox with him on the boat," says Prindle. "Where are the other paintings from those twenty years?" Whether he was painting or not -- "Where was he?"
Although Beyond the Forest doesn't solve that mystery, it does attempt to make what is known about Hüpeden available to as many interested parties as possible. Wall text for the paintings will be available in Spanish as well as English; a virtual visit to the show is available online (PDF).
"We want to reach a constituency that often doesn't visit galleries," stresses Prindle. "Anyone can look at this."
For those who do want to see the show in person, the gallery is open Mon.-Fri. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition reception takes place Saturday, September 22 from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.