July 14, 2013

Art Review: Bowdoin reaffirms the place of Prendergast

By DANIEL KANY

(Continued from page 1)

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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

In "The Idlers," the artist blocks any spatial release behind the seven elegantly dressed women with a pair of conveniently-placed boats.

In "Lighthouse at St. Malo" -- made during the life-changing 1907 trip when he discovered Cezanne -- Prendergast walks you into the scene with the flow of visitors. But as the figures break down into Impressionist marks, you leave the crowd and follow the dappled strokes of the sea against the breakwater. It's a moment of genius.

One of the best things about "By the Sea" is the tiny room filled with works by the artist's "allies" such as his brother Charles, William Glackens and Nabis painter Maurice Denis. Prendergast is both revealed and elevated by these comparisons.

Prendergast's scenes of nudes on beaches may look odd to us puritanical New Englanders, but it was a common theme pursued seriously by Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir and many others. Fundamentally, Prendergast is presenting classicism -- but the baroque Dionysian mode versus the sober Apollonian mode. This cuts to the core of Poussin's dialectical vision. It is also recalls the then-ranking international art historian Heinrich Wolfflin's 1888 book "Renaissance and Baroque" that presents art history as a pendulum swinging between the two eponymous modes echoed by sense/sensibility, enlightenment/romantic, intellectual/emotional and so on.

Prendergast, however, follows Poussin's (literary) modes as they reach past major and minor into a full range of possibilities (imagine the set of scales starting from each white key on the piano). For example, Prendergast looks to seasonal modes with "Autumn." In "Sunday Promenade," he posits a weekend mode of fashion, activity, etc. And we feel the difference between nude women swimming and the fashionable figures parading on a public beach.

Prendergast's modes comprise an extraordinarily sophisticated philosophical vision of cultural aesthetics. His was an essentially post-modern view of contemporary life as multi-faceted classicism.

Casually quick viewers might see little more than affect in Prendergast's late works, but anyone who follows his artistic trail should find them just as brilliant as they are beautiful.

Having been misrepresented as a lightweight by recent critics concerned about their own credibility, "By the Sea" rightly re-establishes Prendergast -- so widely admired by his muscular contemporaries and critics -- as a major figure of the American Modernist movement. Between the handsome installation and impressive catalog, Bowdoin curator Joachim Homann deserves particular credit for pulling Prendergast studies out of the low-tide mud.

Whether you want to wrap head around the brainiest moments of Western art history or simply want to be charmed by an elegant American Impressionist, "By the Sea" is well worth a visit.

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

dankany@gmail.com

 

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Additional Photos

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

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

 


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