It landed on the teacher’s desk with a thud, as only “Moby-Dick” can.
Scott Kelley, then a junior in high school, groaned. Herman Melville’s 800-page novel would consume him for the next semester of high school English. He didn’t know at the time that “Moby-Dick” also would change his life and become his personal ballast, providing stability, consistency and a way forward in a confusing and always-changing world.
“His language is hard for us, and it doesn’t always translate well today with our 140-character society,” said Kelley, an artist from Peaks Island. “But it’s an amazing story.”
Kelley, 53, is among the artists whose work is part of a new exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art, “Of Whales in Paint: Rockwell Kent’s Moby-Dick.” It explores the cultural imprint of the 1851 novel and its influence on a century of visual art in America. The centerpiece of the third-floor exhibition is a limited-edition, three-volume set of “Moby-Dick,” published in 1930 and illustrated by Rockwell Kent, who interprets the journey of Ahab and his revenge-hunt of the great white whale in ink drawings.
The museum purchased the book last year and is displaying it alongside drawings, prints and paintings from its Kent collection.
The exhibition frames Kent’s preoccupation with the sea in the context of the passion for exploration and adventure that he shared with Melville. “Of Whales in Paint” also includes work by contemporary artists, like Kelley, who are inspired by Melville’s prose and create work in response. Other prominent artists represented in the show are Leonard Baskin, Jamie Wyeth and Frank Stella.
“Moby-Dick” is enjoying a renaissance, as readers appreciate anew the dense brilliance of Melville’s words, his ruggedly unapologetic storytelling and the audacity of Ahab’s single-minded quest to kill the whale.
The exhibition is one expression of “Moby-Dick” culture in Portland this fall. Beginning Nov. 17, the museum hosts a four-day community reading of the novel, with 130 people reading for about 10 minutes each.
“We thought it was important to have the words of Melville be spoken,” said Marcie Griswold, public programs coordinator. That event is similar to round-the-clock “Moby-Dick” readings that have popped up in other cities, although the museum event will include breaks and the opportunity for sleep.
On Nov. 18, Portland Ovations brings Maine-bred monologist Mike Daisey to Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland for “Khan and the Whale: The Wrath of Moby Dick.” In a 90-minute performance, Daisey turns Melville’s seafaring tale of rage and failure into a story about “slipknots and space worms.” He compares the novel to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which Daisey believes to be “the very best in the broadest stroke of ‘Moby-Dick,’ boiled down and turned into space opera.”
“Moby-Dick” looms over 20th-century American culture. William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison cited its influence, and Jackson Pollock made a painting about it – and named his dog Ahab. It’s been compared to James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”
The novel’s opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” is among the most-quoted lines in American literature.
Its spiritual themes and tragic nature suggest references to the Bible and Shakespeare. Famously, Ray Bradbury said, “Shakespeare wrote ‘Moby-Dick,’ using Melville as a Ouija board.”
Melville shares lineage with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was a close friend and to whom the novel is dedicated, and Henry David Thoreau, with whom he shared a skepticism of the value of progress and technology.
“Moby-Dick” was published in 1851, near the end of the whaling era in America. Whales had been hunted to near extinction by then, and Melville was motivated to document a fading industry vital to the growth of the nation and characteristic of seafaring communities across the Northeast.
The book failed. Melville died 40 years after its publication, never knowing the status it would achieve in American literature. Among those who held the book in high regard was Rockwell Kent, who was born in 1882, 31 years after “Moby-Dick” was first published and about the time the book became culturally irrelevant. Kent loved New England and loved Maine. He spent several summers on Monhegan in the early 1900s.
A transcendentalist, he found inspiration in the wilds of Monhegan, built a house at the edge of the island and spent many long hours staring out across the sea. He traveled extensively – to Greenland, Newfoundland, Ireland, Alaska and elsewhere.
ART GIVES BOOK NEW STATUS
Along the way, Kent discovered “Moby-Dick,” and when Lakeside Press approached him about illustrating a different ocean adventure, Kent instead suggested “Moby-Dick.” His illustrations for the Lakeside Press edition in 1930 relaunched “Moby-Dick” and helped it become the classic that it is today, said Diana Greenwold, the museum’s assistant curator of American art.
The museum’s first edition is one of 1,000. It came in three volumes with embossed leather covers and an aluminum slip case. Between 1926 and 1930, Kent produced more than 280 original illustrations in pen, ink and pencil for the book, Greenwold said. The museum displays the volumes under glass, with the pages open to illustrations.
The museum built the exhibition around the book, transforming “Moby-Dick” from a bound physical object with its trove of Kent paintings and drawings and other material related to “Moby-Dick.” The museum borrowed several Kent drawings from Jamie Wyeth, who lives in Maine and is an authority on Kent, who is his favorite artist. He owns many of Kent’s paintings and “Moby-Dick” drawings, as well as the house that Kent built on Monhegan.
Wyeth began collecting Kent drawings as a teenager. He wandered into Weyhe Gallery on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, where he saw a couple of what he thought were Kent’s woodcut prints from “Moby-Dick.” He asked if there were more, and he was led upstairs, and “there were all the chapter headings from ‘Moby-Dick.’ I bought them all. Turns out, when Lakeside did the book, Weyhe gave him an exhibition. It was right after the crash of ’29. Nothing sold. I thought they were woodcuts. But they are brush and pen and ink, as if to look like woodcuts.”
That began his fascination with Kent. The two artists never met, but Wyeth and Kent exchanged letters just before Kent died in 1971. “He was sort of America’s leading painting and illustrator at the time. He was the god. Then the god tumbled,” his reputation sullied with charges in the 1950s that he was a Soviet sympathizer, Wyeth said.
For this show, the museum borrowed Wyeth’s 1972 oil painting of “Kent House” from the Brandywine River Museum. Wyeth painted the Monhegan house from the perspective of the rocks, looking up and across the home’s perch on water’s edge. It’s a painting of the house that Kent built, and it stands as a tribute to Kent himself.
OTHER ARTISTS INSPIRED
“Of Whales in Paint” touches briefly on issues of race and gender. When visitors enter the exhibition from the elevator, the first piece they see is “The Whiteness of the Whale (After Melville)” by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., a New York art collective with ties to Maine that is showing other work in nearby museum galleries. They glue pages of text to canvas, then paint over the pages to lightly cover the text below. This minimalist piece explores Melville’s use of the white whale, and quotes a line appropriate for our times. Though the color white is pure and “employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord … there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”
Elaine Reichek, the only female artist in the exhibition, borrows the iconography of 19th-century stitched samplers to note the absence of female characters in the book.
Kelley, the Peaks Island artist, has focused his artistic practice around whale-themed imagery for much of this decade. He has several pieces in the exhibition. In one, he recreates the cover and pages of a ship log from a 19th-century sailing vessel. He’s spent many hours poring over logs that are part of the collection of the Provincetown Public Library on Cape Cod, a whaling capital of old New England. The journals offer a dry accounting of the weather, supplies and the number of whales killed – and crewmen lost.
Kelley recreates one of these books with drawings of whale spouting patterns, which sailors used to identify whales and decide which to pursue and which to let live.
His watercolor “Phoebe” is part of a larger series of paintings in which he imagines friends and neighbors as figures from whaling lore. He poses the young girl in a light dress and equips her with a harpoon that she carries in one hand and rests on her bony shoulder.
Kelley also has a series of scrimshaw carvings, a nod to the bone carvings of sailors at sea. For this project, Kelley used reclaimed ivory from piano keys.
“Moby-Dick” has stayed with him since high school because of the immensity of the story. The idea of going out to sea and hunting whales resonated with him as a young man. He became interested in the nautical culture and began making drawings of whales.
After they read “Moby-Dick” the first time, he and a high-school buddy pledged to re-read it every five years. They’ve held true to the pledge.
Kelley turns his gallery talks into history lessons. Whaling, he reminds people, was a major American industry and the source of wealth for early American cities across the Northeast. But it was difficult and dangerous work, and it appealed to men seeking adventure and those in need of a paycheck.
“Whaling back then was regarded as a gap year. Between your education, you would go off and do something as an adventure. That was what Melville ended up doing,” Kelley said. “But there’s this collective guilt about whaling that we all have. We sweep it under the rug and don’t pay attention to it. But it’s what men did. They put out to sea and they hoped – they hoped it would change their fortune, they hoped they would come back.”
Like Kelley, Daisey re-reads “Moby-Dick” every few years. He read it for the first time as a young man in London, when he was studying acting. He needed a book that would take a long time to read and get him through his daily commute.
“It’s enormous and rambling, and its audacity and scale appealed to me,” Daisey said.
When he reads it now as an adult, the book reminds him of growing up in Fort Kent, where long hours of outdoor solo play left him wondering what else was out there. He relates to the whaler’s “wild loneliness,” which he associates with memories of northern Maine.
Each time he reads “Moby-Dick,” Daisey discovers something new – about the book and about himself. “It seeps in over time,” he said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:25 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2016, to correct the museum’s hours.