July 14, 2013

Art Review: Bowdoin reaffirms the place of Prendergast

By DANIEL KANY

The most important figure in the landmark exhibition "Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea" just might be a little goat standing by a pair of fancy ladies in Prendergast's "The Idlers."

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“Lighthouse at St. Malo,” c. 1907, by Maurice Prendergast

Images courtesy of Bowdoin College

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“Autumn,” ca. 1917-18, by Maurice Prendergast

Additional Photos Below

ART REVIEW

"MAURICE PRENDERGAST: BY THE SEA," oil paintings, watercolors and sketchbooks

WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick

WHEN: Through Oct. 13

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; until 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday

COST: Free and open to the public

INFO: 725-3275; bowdoin.edu/art-museum

The goat shifts the painting from a snapshot of early century fashionable leisure to philosophical commentary about society. Filling in for a satyr, Prendergast's goat takes us well past the fashionably indulgent Bouguereau to the great granddaddy of smart Modernist art, Nicholas Poussin (France, 1594-1665).

Poussin's name pops up from time to time in art texts, but fully understanding what Prendergast saw in him requires a kind of classical education that no longer exists.

Hold on. Is this the popular Prendergast -- the watercolorist of charming Maine and New England beach scenes and painter of colorful Modernist bon bons?

Oh, yes.

Maurice Prendergast's (1858-1924) work was appealing, attractive and fully engaged with decorative modes of painting, yet he was one of the most erudite and visually sophisticated American artists of the Modernist movement.

Just as you don't have to analyze a symphony by Beethoven to enjoy it, you don't need any explanation to appreciate Prendergast's work at Bowdoin. Despite the erudition underneath, Prendergast's paintings are approachable and attractive.

Analyzing Prendergast, however, reveals him to be extraordinarily ambitious in both painterly and art historical terms.

The obvious contrast is with Winslow Homer, arguably America's greatest artist. Homer might be more profound, important and influential, but Prendergast is more erudite, philosophical, cultured and complex.

While Homer emptied his paintings of people (despite his family's hotel a few yards behind his studio overlooking the ever-crowded Old Orchard Beach), Prendergast filled his beach scenes with vibrant figures.

Prendergast's work is primarily painting about painting. This is why was he was sought out for the selection committees for the seminal 1913 Armory Show and by leaders like Robert Henri for exhibitions of nascent American Modernism.

Prendergast spent years studying and working in Europe. He was a colorist who understood the works of the Fauves, Matisse, the Post-Impressionists and the Van Gogh-worshipping Nabis. But he was also an artist of Boston who appears to have been fundamentally inspired by the elegant frieze-oriented figurative murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes installed in the Boston Public Library in the 1890s. The Symbolist Movement, of which Puvis was a heralded leader, is the easiest path to understand Prendergast's strange-to-us-now combination of sophisticated elegance and ambitious intellectualism.

Following Puvis, Prendergast used sense to mobilize sensibility.

The first room of "By the Sea" reveals a talented young artist internalizing lessons of the day with an eye to Europe. While a watercolor of a seated couple looks to Monet, it embodies Prendergast's struggle to assimilate abstract shapes into (an approximation of) Impressionism. Nearby, his ever-popular monotypes successfully embed the shapes in the surface -- by following not Monet but the value-attenuated and flattened style of Puvis.

Prendergast locks in early on a repeated high-horizon composition looking down onto a dappled beach with numerous figures. This approach partially solves his constant struggles with a stage/backdrop structure in which the sea horizon is awkwardly conjoined with the sky. Interestingly enough, the first/early room contains the only works in the large show in which the sea comprises the entire horizon. Afterwards, Prendergast always mediates the sea horizon line with a land mass. This denies any spatial release for the eye, and while it can feel a bit claustrophobic to a Homer fan, the goal is to keep the eye in the front space that Prendergast builds on the surface of the painting.

In his mature watercolors, Prendergast holds the surface with bits of white paper dividing the strokes. In his oils, he builds up indulgently innumerable layers of impasto.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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“Sunday Promenade,” c. 1914-15, by Maurice Prendergast

click image to enlarge

“The Idlers,” c. 1916-18, by Maurice Prendergast

 


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