Charles Munch's Exhibition Featured in the Milwaukee Journal

Color, emotion key in Charles Munch's paintings

Sarah Hauer , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel November 18, 2016

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As he canoes, bikes and hikes through Wisconsin, Charles Munch appreciates how sunlight hits the scenery.

"The air can be crystalline in the light and the air is much cooler," he said.

Munch, who calls himself sensitive to color, paints nature scenes of the Midwest that vibrate with the tints and shades he mixes with extreme precision.

The 71-year-old artist attributes his ability to use color to his training as an art conservator.

After graduating from Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he studied studio art in 1968, Munch took a year off to paint in Sturgeon Bay. He met Richard Flagg, an art collector from Door County who suggested Munch should become an art conservator.

Munch had not heard of the profession before. But after talking with Flagg, Munch moved to New York City and trained as an apprentice in restoring Old Master paintings. (The term "Old Master" generally refers to the most recognized European artists working between the Renaissance and 1800.)

He was trained by William Suhr who had a private restoration business focusing on European Old Master and 19th century American paintings. Munch worked for the Frick Collection, an art museum in Manhattan.

Art conservation is intricate and demanding. It combines artistry, science, historical research and craftsmanship. Munch spent long, intimate hours with the paintings he conserved and learned what a good painting looks like. He needed to be able to paint in all types of styles and techniques.  Most importantly, his colors needed to match.

"You can't paint on subtly colored paintings without being able to mix the colors well," Munch said.

After three years, he grew tired of city life. Munch, who grew up in St. Louis and spent some of his summer weeks in Door County, missed the landscape of the Midwest.

"I was just starved for it," he said.

He moved to Sturgeon Bay and married fellow art conservator Jane Furchgott (they're now divorced).

The pair set up shop in Door County to restore old paintings in the family country home. Munch and Furchgott restored paintings for big museums such as the Milwaukee Art Museum and for collectors in Wisconsin. They specialized in restoring oil paintings that had been soiled, warped, blistered, cracked, abraded and torn. He used solvents and soaps to clean off dirt, exposing the image beneath.

For some time, Munch knew of only one other conservator in the state that restored oil paintings. Munch spent half his days restoring and half painting.

After 10 years, the couple moved to their own home in Lone Rock.  Around 2008, he phased out of the restoration business to focus solely on his own painting. He hopes his own paintings are cared for and never in need of restoration.

 Charles Munch associates the man in "Islands II" with his father who passed away many years ago.  (Photo: Charles Munch)

Charles Munch associates the man in "Islands II" with his father who passed away many years ago. (Photo: Charles Munch)

The style of Munch's own work, on display at the Tory Folliard Gallery in the Third Ward, is drastically different from the paintings he restored.

The paintings in his current show are mostly reminiscences of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where Munch has traveled for the last 15 years. Male figures in the paintings are associated with his father, who died many years ago. Munch usually starts with a landscape and then imagines what would be happening there.

While nature always played a prominent role in his art, Munch has developed into his current style. Up until the early 1980s, he painted in a controlled realistic style. But finding himself wanting to express more emotion in his paintings, Munch decided he was painting himself into a corner.

"Everything was so realistic that I felt my emotion was somewhat left out," he said. "I decided I wanted to become or starting painting paintings that were much more overtly emotional. There was room for expressing emotions directly instead of behind the scenes as you can with a representational realistic painting."

He made a quick, drastic shift into his more expressionistic mode. His first paintings in his newfound style were much looser than those on display through Nov. 26 at Tory Folliard Gallery. (His work also has been  included in the Wisconsin Triennial.)

Munch wants his images to be objects of meditation for getting in touch with the natural world.

"There's often something there that I feel and I'm trying to show it," he said. "I want other people to open themselves up to perhaps feeling the same."

He takes multi-day trips cycling on old train beds converted into bike trails. He canoes all over the state. His favorite jaunt is to canoe down the Wisconsin River just 10 miles from his home.

"It feeds me," he said. "It nourishes me and the beauty of it so often is inspiring."

IF YOU GO

"Charles Munch: Human Nature" continues through Nov. 26 at Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St. For info, visit toryfolliard.com.