September 15, 2013

Daniel Kany: Postcards from the great Thomas Cornell

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"Wild Pig," 1960, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery

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"Goat I," 1969, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: June Fitzpatrick Gallery, 522 Congress St., Portland

WHEN: Through Sept. 27

HOURS: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

INFO: 699-5083;

The most striking works of the show, however, are Cornell's figurative groups of the other classicism -- the intoxicating Dionysian rather than the ordered Apollonian. In his 1975 "Dionysian Scene," a group of 15 or so nude figures gather in a forest clearing.

After a moment, we see these are women around a standing male striking a bit of a pose. Taking another cue from classical painting, a female figure standing on the left side of the image confronts the viewer directly with a knowing smile and an unbroken gaze.

Cornell's "Dancing Women" (1975) is one of the most powerfully creepy images I have ever seen (and I am a Goya fan). It seems to tap directly into a subversive nerve.

Some might see a fearsomely unbridled image of witchcraft, but Cornell's repeated references and my classical Bowdoin education point me towards "maenads" -- in Greek, the "raving ones" who would dance themselves into intoxicated frenzies in worship of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

Three of the four naked dancers each wields a thyrsus (a ritual staff) while one holds aloft a barely visible and soon-to-be sacrificed goat.

To most viewers, this will be a disturbing image. There is something, again, uncanny about the state of the dancers, which is essentially the opposite of the anthropomorphized intelligence and awareness of the "Old Monkey."

But this taps into an elementally humanistic and even proto-feminist version of classicism celebrated throughout the history of Western painting by Poussin, Titian, Giorgione, C?nne, Picasso and Matisse, among so many others.

It may look like unbridled wildness, but "Dancing Women" reaches down deep into our culture.

Cornell was a sophisticated printmaker and a deep thinker drawn to the explosively subversive potential of human nature. "The Priority of Nature" shows Cornell understood the power of art. 

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


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Additional Photos

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"Pig," 1960, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery

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"Old Monkey," 1959-'60, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery


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