July 21, 2013

Modern Monhegan

A new exhibition at the island's museum captures how modern art altered the offshore haven for artists.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

MONHEGAN — A hundred years ago the biggest news in the art world was the Armory Show, an international exhibition of modern art that opened in New York on Feb. 17, 1913.

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The colors and abstract forms in George Bellows’ “Iron Coast, Monhegan,” reflect modernist influences.

Courtesy Monhegan Museum

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“The Wreck of the St. Christopher” by Joseph DeMartini (1949) is part of “A Spirit of Wonder” at the Monhegan Museum.

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A SPIRIT OF WONDER: MONHEGAN ARTISTS AND 1913 ARMORY SHOW

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily through August; 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. through Sept. 30.

WHERE: Monhegan Museum, Monhegan Island

HOW MUCH: $4

INFO: monheganmuseum.org

HOW TO GET THERE: Several commercial ferry services run boats to Monhegan, including Monhegan Boat Line out of Port Clyde: monheganboat.com.

It was the first time American audiences who did not travel abroad could see for themselves the experimental ideas of the European avant-garde.

For a country that had fallen deeply in love with realistic depictions of tranquil country scenes, modern art proved challenging, difficult and radical.

Broadly defined, modern art included any works that favored experimentation over tradition. It trended away from narrative scenes and relied more an artist's ability to express his or her ideas with a new visual language.

In today's world, it's the norm and hardly radical at all. But a century ago, when trends sometimes took years if not generations to catch on, modern art had everybody talking.

This summer, the Monhegan Museum dedicates its exhibition space to Monhegan artists who were part of the Armory Show and those who were influenced by it. The exhibition, "A Spirit of Wonder: Monhegan Artists and the 1913 Armory Show," is on view through Sept. 30.

Robert Henri was at the center of the modern movement and at the center of Monhegan. He first came to the island, which is known for its high cliffs, deep woods and quaint fishing village, in 1903. He promoted it to his city friends as a magical place full of wonder, surprise and intrigue, and a perfect playground for fostering new ideas.

Five years later, he organized what Monhegan Museum director Ed Deci calls "a somewhat rebellious exhibition" of paintings by his colleagues, referred to as The Eight. The exhibition did not garner a lot of attention, and the group re-formed as the Association of American Painters and Sculptures.

It was that group that organized the Armory Show in the winter of 1913.

Modern art came to America with that exhibition, which traveled from New York to Chicago and Boston. Although the American artists were largely overshadowed by their European counterparts, Maine, and specifically Monhegan, had a significant presence in the Armory Show, said curator Emily Grey.

Indeed, there was one painting in the show with Monhegan in the title, Edward F. Rook's "Grey Sea, Monhegan."

The exhibition on view this summer features a few works by Monhegan artists who participated in the Armory Show, but mostly it includes paintings by a broad range of Monhegan artists who attended the Armory Show and were inspired by it.

Grey has assembled an exhibition that attempts to document the influence of the most important art show of the 20th century -- and held in our country's largest cities -- on an island community tucked 12 miles off the Maine coast and inhabited largely by fishermen, their families and an extended community of seasonal visitors.

"There is no way to underestimate the influence of the Armory Show on art in America," she said. "Even a place like this, remote as it is, was touched by it."

That's because Monhegan is still, in an unlikely way, at the center of the art world. It remains, as it has been since Henri began talking about it early last century, one of the most interesting places in America to explore and to paint, because of its scenery and the casual pace of its lifestyle.

We can see the impact of the Armory Show on the work created by the Monhegan colony of artists, starting with Henri and his prize pupil George Bellows, and extending on down through the years to artists like Joseph DeMartini, Edward Hopper, Emil Holzhauer and Leon Kroll.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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“Whitehead” by Emil Holzhauer, one of the Monhegan artists influenced by the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913.

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The colors and abstract forms in Leon Kroll’s “Monhegan Rocks” reflect modernist influences. Courtesy Monhegan Museum

 


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