California’s Water: A Look Back in Time

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In the fourth year of California’s current drought, the absence of water has clearly affected our state, evident by the dead grass of front lawns, water usage limitations, and the ever-present lack of rain. Today, we can mitigate some of these problems with our modern infrastructure, siphoning water from elsewhere and distributing it throughout the state. But what about one hundred years ago, before the proliferation of pipelines and modern irrigation systems? Well, a little glimpse into the past can be made at the Irvine Museum’s current exhibition, “The Nature of Water.”

Photo Courtesy of the Irvine Museum. Pt. Lobos by Guy Rose (1867-1925)

Founded in 1992 by Joan Irvine Smith and Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke, the Irvine Museum collects and showcases Impressionist art from 1890 to 1940, rotating exhibits every four months. Located on the first floor of Airport Tower, the quaint gallery is just large enough to show a sizeable number of paintings.

The current exhibition, “The Nature of Water,” is timely with the nature of our state’s drought problem, as well as a ruminating reminder of the vast geography available to us in California. Almost every microcosm of the state’s geographic terrain is envisioned in this collection, from the bright, sandy beaches of Southern California, the high snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains, the desolating beauty of the Mojave Desert and even the evergreen forests of Yosemite and the Central Valley. In accordance with the Impressionist style, each of the paintings create an instantly recognizable image of these landscapes from afar, with a multitude of fleeting details and brushstrokes for a closer look.

The entire collection showcases the cycles of water in all its states and forms, from turbulent rain, calm snowfall and raging oceans to black thunderous clouds, muted fog and serene creeks. Three paintings in particular stood out from the range of miniscule to wall-sized paintings.

The first, “Yosemite, Evening From Glacier Point, 1910” by Maurice Braun, is a large canvas of saturated hues with a parallel view of the Yosemite Half Dome, resonating a strangely photographic quality of my own memories.

The second, “No Man’s Land” by William Ritschel, imagines the violent clash of ocean waves upon a cascade of rocks, empowered by the dark, brooding gray sky. The title comes with a stark similarity, invoking a place where man could easily be swept away by the violent currents much like the trenches of the Western Front.

The third, “Sunset Boulevard” by Mischa Askenazy, immerses one back to the early 20th century. Depicting a rainy day in an urban sprawl, the rain serves as a stark contrast to the title, reflecting on a landscape that mixes Los Angeles and San Francisco with high inclined streets, parked Model T sedans and roadsters, and people going about their day in a city that never ends.

One final painting can sum up the exhibit’s theme: Paul Grimm’s “Nature Symphony” foregrounds a desert speckled by bright pink desert flowers with shadows cast upon it by a mountain shouldering gray cliffs, snowy peaks and large, bulbous pearl white clouds, back dropped against a vibrant blue sky. California is remarkably situated to enjoy all of these landscapes all the time, and the element of water ties it all together. Even more astonishing is art’s displacement of time, taking everyone back to a time where nature ruled over the city of concrete and water was quite plentiful.

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