Edgar Britton, an artist who lived and worked in Colorado and in Colorado Springs for several decades from the '30s through the '70s, is virtually unknown today.
Like his contemporaries and near-contemporaries Boardman Robinson, Adolph Dehn and Laurence Barrett, Britton was prolific, versatile and hard to categorize. He was a superb sculptor, a fine draftsman, a gifted printmaker, a fluid painter and a skilled woodworker. He created gorgeous stained glass and, with Edgar Miller, was part of a team that renovated/created the Carl Street apartments in Chicago in the '20s.
Born in 1900, Britton died in 1977. In common with many artists of his generation, particularly those who pursued the figurative regionalism pioneered by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, Britton's work never attracted much critical attention. Critics, as well as the public, were interested in the newest new thing -- first abstract expressionism, then pop art, then minimalism, then performance art. As the art world exploded into dozens of shiny fragments, artists who worked in settled traditions seemed stodgy and uninteresting.
A few years ago, a show at the Fine Arts Center featuring some of Britton's work caught the attention of Jane Hilberry, a professor of English at Colorado College. Hilberry, a poet who holds a doctorate in Renaissance literature, was drawn to Britton's work, and tried to find out more about him.
"I went to the Fine Arts Center library," she recalled in an interview, "and they didn't have anything at all. I was just stunned by the beauty of his work. And so I started asking around."
What she found was that Britton was still remembered, with affection, respect, even awe, by the remnants of the artistic community that flourished here a generation ago. "And I found that most of the people who remembered him were in their 70s and 80s," she said.
Hilberry, although she scarcely thought of herself as an art critic, much less a biographer, realized that if anything of substance were to be written about Britton's life and work, she'd have to do it. Just weeks after seeing the FAC show, Hilberry began the process that has culminated in the publication of her book The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton which coincides with the exhibit The Lyrical Line: Edgar Britton's Passion for the Human Figure, which opens at the FAC tomorrow.
What first attracted the author to Britton's art was its matter-of-fact eroticism, a frank and joyful sexuality that she saw in the mildly risqu bronzes exhibited a few years ago at the Fine Arts Center. But until she met Katie Dodge, Britton's partner and companion for the last years of his life, she was unfamiliar with his later work -- loose, celebratory, explicit and earthy. Dodge, a strikingly beautiful woman whose image is ubiquitous in Britton's art, retains hundreds of his sculptures, drawings and paintings.
Hilberry found them extraordinary. As a poet, she felt an affinity with his work. "My own poetry relies very heavily on image, on the tension between the earthbound and the spiritual. ... [I was drawn to] his joyful, celebratory sense of the body."
Her book, she resolved, would be celebratory as well, an attempt to capture Britton's spirit and to translate her response to Britton's images into prose. Hilberry talked about her effort to create such a book, one that would be neither criticism nor biography, but an effort by one artist to understand and illuminate the work of another.
"I wanted the writing to be beautiful and lyrical in the spirit of Britton's art. He could really see the exuberance of the body. He loved and understood the human body, loved its lines, the forms it assumes, the way it carries emotion, the way two bodies in interplay with another create a third form." And to fully understand the art, as Hilberry discovered, you have to understand its creator.
"He had this quality of gentleness, quiet, reserve -- his art was a way to work something out. It's very interesting to try to feel who someone is whom you've never met. I tried to understand his psychic investment in his pieces. I had moments when I felt his presence."
Britton's erotic art, while sexy and explicit, is hardly shocking. You'd think that in today's highly sexualized pop culture (1 million pornographic Web sites and counting! Half-naked pop stars leering at us from supermarket magazine racks!), Britton's earthy drawings would scarcely be noticed by the world's self-appointed censors. Sadly, you'd be wrong. The original printer withdrew from the project, claiming that the book's content would unduly upset school children touring the printing plant. And some of the book's institutional sponsors didn't want to be publicly identified because of the sexual content.
Britton would not have been the least bit surprised by this. But he would have been saddened to realize that our society believes that kids can be exposed to horrifically violent imagery (e.g., the Palestinian boy shot to death in Gaza, battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan' most player/shooter video games), but not to naked bodies.
One of the book's most telling illustrations is a diptych showing two couples. In one, a man and a woman are making love; in the other, a man is shooting another man. The one is labeled "ok," the other "not ok."
Jane Hilberry's book promises to be every bit as lyrical and sexy as the art that it celebrates. The exhibition opens with a reception Friday at the FAC, and Hilberry will host a gallery talk and book signing on Saturday at 11 a.m.