Americans are fascinated by “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville’s 1851 tale of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of an angry white Leviathan of a whale as narrated by the character who famously opens in the first person: “Call me Ishmael.”

It was not always the case. Only 3,200 copies were sold during Melville’s life. But in the 20th century, critics and writers came to see the large, odd and multifaceted “Moby-Dick” as an American masterpiece.

“Of Whales in Paint: Rockwell Kent’s Moby-Dick” is the Portland Museum of Art’s nod to art made in response to Melville’s novel. Properly, the museum focuses on Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), whose 280 ink drawings for a 1930 edition of “Moby-Dick” helped popularize the novel. Kent himself survived a shipwreck in 1929, a news item that undoubtedly fueled public fascination.

Kent was an adventurer as well as one of America’s greatest painters. And he was a mystic in the tradition of the New England Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson. Hailing from upstate New York, Kent was a wanderer: His five years on Monhegan Island helped further the mystique of coastal painting and the spiritual underpinnings of Maine’s plein-air tradition.

The bulk of the Kent images in the exhibition are from the personal collection of Jamie Wyeth, who has owned Kent’s Lobster Cove property on Monhegan Island since the 1960s and whose family is deeply tied to the coastal Maine tradition.

Kent’s drawings are fittingly book-sized, crisp and reductively stylized in a way that reflects the linear but sensual elegance of Art Deco figuration. If his clarity sets the stage for “Whales in Paint,” it is bookended by Frank Stella’s huge, raucous and motley prints.

I am always flabbergasted by Stella’s path from making philosophical, crisp black paintings in the 1960s to his 15 years’ worth of wildly unrestrained Moby-Dick-inspired works (which, to me, are about as successful as Ahab). In one sense, they are painterly, and therefore in line with Stella’s stated visual mentors, the first generation of American Abstract Expressionists, but they combine a busy and complicated-seeming vocabulary with the stomach-churning color sets of the worst moments of ’70s fashion.

While the three very large prints included here from the late 1980s and early 1990s are the very types of works I think generally fail, they work in the context of this show. They add international star power and visual gymnastics that take prints outside of illustration through painting and even into sculpture, with a work from Stella’s “Moby-Dick Domes” series, a 6-foot print with a 3-foot bubble protruding from its center, like a fat, obnoxious, rich man holding court in a gaudy suit.

The most impressive presence in “Whale in Paint” is local artist Scott Kelley. His four scrimshaw works on eyebrow-raising reclaimed piano-key ivory (which both connects and repulses the New England whaling legacy) include two horizontal whales and two vertical water spouts. His brilliant suite of watercolors under a single, horizontal frame present what look like splayed pages of books showing drawn images of spouts – and a deliciously textured cover of the imaginary book.

Kelley’s portrait of a girl, about 12, is the high point of the show. “Phoebe” is from a series in which Kelley re-imagines acquaintances as figures from whaling lore. She is scrappy, lean and practical in a decidedly flat gingham sundress, but she is fierce and powerfully confident with her man-sized, shouldered harpoon. Kelley labels her with old-timey script on the white watercolor paper as though a descendant of actual historical figure Peleg Nye, who lost a leg to a whale. Kelley uses style as well as elements like fake foxing (age spots on paper) to give a sense of antique legacy to his works. He not only stands up to the big historical names in “Whales in Paint,” but, quite often, above them.

Along with Kent and Kelly, the other high point is American print giant Leonard Baskin (1922-2000), whose suite of “Moby-Dick” prints include Ahab, the whale and the three harpooners Dagoo, Tashtego and Queequeg (Ishmael’s sensual bedmate). As the names of the harpooners indicate, the crew of the Pequod was an eminently diverse lot from around the world. And this is a hint about both the difficulty and strengths of “Moby-Dick,” which was published two months before its American debut in England under the title “The Whale.” The English edition did not include the epilogue in which Ishmael’s survival is explained, and the idea of a posthumous narrative was anathema to the English critics. The earlier publication in England now appears to have hamstrung Melville’s novel: Americans took their understanding on the word of overly proper critics from across the pond, and so “Moby-Dick” floundered.

Melville himself referred to the novel as a “romance.” And this cuts to the core of the American experience. “Moby-Dick” reflects American romanticism, its international flavor and multifaceted individual perspectivism.

It’s a complex work of literature insofar as it constantly shifts gears between the revenge story, technical aspects of whales and whaling, whaling lore, sentimental education, philosophy and cultural or religious perspectives. Melville plays what were then very unusual games with multiple genres. He shifts between forms of prose, songs, plays, recipes, directions, histories and theater – specifically, Shakespearian theater and its host of devices such as asides and a willingness to break down the fourth wall. While this fundamental weirdness was part and parcel of romantic literature (think Lewis Carroll), it also lies on a straight line between Diderot’s Enlightenment-announcing Encyclopedia and the Modernist path to Post-Modernism.

In a sense, Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is a cabinet of wonders dedicated to the worlds opened up by whaling. As a cultural approach, consider, for example, the Victorian L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley, where natural artifacts are presented in a manner more like Freudian association than scientific method. While Melville predates Freud, this is a powerful notion about the education of individual human perspective. And this is the force behind Romanticism: The human mind, after all, is hardly organized by the Dewey Decimal System. Rather, individual perspective creates its own paths for the processing of experience, culture, society, spirituality and purpose. Taking this tack, it is easier to see Romanticism as the ever-American way: individuality, self-determination and the progressive drive to conquer the mysterious and map the uncharted.

The struggle to conquer nature, in American terms, at least, is not a done deal. In America – as Kent was reminded, for example, when his ship wrecked in 1929 – nature fights back. Thoreau’s drive to value simplified survival acknowledges the sublime powers of nature. And there is a reason we don’t think of Winslow Homer as a painter of manicured gardens of cities (Bowdoin’s Homer image of the 1892 World’s Fair, for example, is theater imaging the future, not real life) but rather, of the brutal power of the Maine coast – a border between natural realms.

Don’t expect many paintings: Rather than the content of the show, “Whale in Paint” references one of Melville’s quirkily titled chapters of “Moby-Dick.” Instead, the exhibition fittingly focuses mainly on prints – the natural stuff of illustrated literature. This is not a comprehensive show, nor is it intended to be. Instead, it opens the door to the vastness of one of the most popular subjects in American cultural history, the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod, which set out from its New England port on a cold and lonely Christmas Day.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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