Considering Maine’s oversized role in the history of American visual culture, it’s hardly surprising that our strongest and most visible museums are venues for art.
Take the Maine Maritime Museum, one of the state’s most popular museums. It is dedicated to maritime culture, but because of the eras it surveys and Maine’s role as a mecca for painting, it is also a great place to see art.
Since the late 1980s, the national trend has quietly moved toward art that values effort, craftsmanship and skill. Fine craft has become more and more important to the national understanding of art. To wit, the most famous living American artist is probably Dale Chihuly, who works in glass.
The blurring of art and craft has changed how we view not only scrimshaw engravings on ivory and the carved figureheads on ships’ bows, but also the entire culture of craftsmanship historically associated with boat building in Maine.
In the shadow of Bath Iron Works, it’s easy to think about boat building in Maine merely as an industry rather than as an entire culture that looked very different before the Industrial Revolution.
“Going Coastal: Humor, Parody, and Amusement of a Maritime Nature” inspired me to reconsider the museum. It’s a show about the maritime culture that dominated Maine for centuries.
Some sections of “Going Coastal” are historical, such as photographs of people with musical instruments and sheet music folios of popular tunes like “The Dear Old Kennebec Way Down in Maine.” But some of it is art – objects that self-consciously comment on culture.
What makes “Going Coastal” so interesting is how it presents an extremely broad cultural context of maritime amusement, which reached deeply into all walks of life in Maine, and then offers commentary from within that culture, such as New Yorker-style cartoons and parodies of all sorts. From an art audience viewpoint, the unexpected impact is the extent to which the pre-industrial ideals of craftsmanship, industry, leisure and art are in such close contact. For example, we’re now enchanted with the do-it-yourself movement (remember that post-1980s shift). But, to the vast majority of Mainers before the 1900s, DIY was daily life.
While it opens the door to the cultural and artistic depth of the museum, “Going Coastal” ironically might be the weakest show now at the maritime museum in terms of art. Nevertheless, it connects to our contemporary sensibilities by revealing self-conscious irony and wit in cultural commentary – the hallmarks of contemporary art.
Jane Crosen’s hand-drawn maps, for example, are the stuff of humorous paper place mats: Her 1995 “Various Approaches to Seal Harbor” gives us a map in which the preponderance of things share names that are confusingly and hilariously indistinguishable. It is not only funny, but it reveals a depth of local knowledge.
Crosen’s art also takes on the idea of kitsch. This is the first work you see in “Going Coastal,” so it’s key to the argument that Maine kitsch isn’t “kitsch,” but “deliberate camp.” The distinction is that kitsch is naive and tasteless while deliberate camp intentionally adopts a primitive aesthetic to exploit it.
You could follow this line of reasoning into why Maine has so long appealed to artists as well as tourists. Around clear simplicity and naivety, visitors can be themselves without feeling pressure to conform.
The primary view of Mainers presented by the museum, however, is deeply serious: Maine’s maritime history, after all, is the story of hardworking and talented craftsmen and courageous sailors.
One particularly interesting art issue of the museum arises from its extensive collection of paintings of ships. Painting has long been an art of genres – landscapes, portraits, still lifes, etc. – and hanging next to the portraits, it becomes quite clear that ship paintings comprise their own genre. While a seascape alone can be considered “marine art,” anything with any human maritime objects is called “maritime art.” But ship portraits have robust internal standards that go well beyond that umbrella moniker. They are a distinct form of art.
W. Edgar’s beautifully rendered 1903 painting “Four-mast bark Dirigo off Sydney Heads,” for example, shows – in profile – the first steel sailing ship built in the United States (at Bath). Like the other ship portraits, accompanying the typical painting information are the vessel’s gross tonnage (3,005) and register length (312 feet).
A common alternate is the wreck scene, such as J.C. Tallman’s “Wreck of Ship Hanover, 1849.” Despite the excitement, these paintings have less of a tabloid flavor than the weight of memorial – maybe for the ship, as well the men who were on it.
Of course, some of the paintings would be great in any setting. I think sailor and painter Charles Patterson’s giant oil on canvas, “Ship W.R. Grace ‘Report Me All Well,’ ” is one of the most exciting paintings anywhere in Maine. In a style inspired by N.C. Wyeth, it shows, from a passing ship, the three-decked vessel in billowed sails heading north in the Pacific with signal flags indicating all is well. (Ships would pass close, identify themselves and ask to be reported, since they wouldn’t know which would first make port.)
There is a huge amount of data in these paintings that we have long forgotten how to read. But even a few scraps here and there – and the museum’s copious and excellent label copy gives us plenty – quickly open more and more exciting doors for the viewer.
While the mission of the Maine Maritime Museum is maritime culture, it is a treasure trove of art.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: