Among the shows of summer, two are privileges of a high order. They provide the work of artists that we have applauded for decades. One show is at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, the other is at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, and both are warmed by familiarity.

The Colby show, “American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White,” is sumptuous. In dozens upon dozens of vintage prints, it presents three photographers whose work rose in intensity as the fortunes of the times — the 1930s — declined. You can feel the weight of the Great Depression in the fabric of the prints themselves.

Often small, saturated with silver and occasionally time-worn, they are utterly unlike the performances that museums now expect of photographers. The charge was to document the grinding weariness of the times; the goal was to make a living while doing so. You can smell all this in the prints.

Asking an artist struggling to get by to document people struggling to survive created an empathetic union that is embodied in their images. They are more than photographic essays about a decade, clinical views of what was taking place. They are in themselves a part of what was taking place.

I may have overemphasized the societal aspects of the exhibition, but the images of the circumstances of people touched my heart. As the term “American Modern” implies, however, there is more to the event than appraisals of the lives of discouraged people. Modernism denotes a break with the romantic imagery of prior decades and the giving of attention to the objective world of the time.

Of the three photographers, Berenice Abbott is the most familiar to us. She lived in Maine for decades, and completed a dilute essay about us. Her years of achievement were in New York (all three of the photographers were deeply involved with that place), as the images in her incomparable 1939 book “Changing New York” attest.

Many of the book’s photographs are in the Colby show; they follow NYC as it transformed itself from a 19th-entury city to one denoted by the toupee’d Chrysler Building. The Empire State Building is staunch, but the 1930s needed theatrics, and the Chrysler provided it.

Abbott’s work in this show includes deeply felt images of the South and its poverty, but its pulse is the geometry of New York and the people it governs. She presents them with infinite care amid the abstraction and muscular glamour of the city. Those images were achieved as carefully as studio portraits. The city sat for her, and she waited while it got comfortable.

Margaret Bourke-White is the most widely known of the artists in the exhibition. Her 1936 cover for the first issue of Life magazine has migrated to the status of an American icon.

More a successful photojournalist and commercial photographer than a fine arts photographer, Bourke-White was nevertheless a purist in Modernist terms. She embraced geometry, scale, order and engineering fluency. Her “Wind Tunnel Construction” and “Chrysler Corporation” are among my long-retained images. Her work did extend to social commentary, and a number of images drawn from it are in the exhibition, but technology is the key to her art.

Walker Evans is the third and most admired photographer in the exhibit. His work was one of the opening efforts of Modernism, and an epochal encouragement to free expression. It is one of the fundamental stories of modern art, and probes all avenues of fine and documentary work.

Evans, more than anyone, succeeded in their combination. His Alabama “Tenant Farmer’s Wife” and both of his “Bud Fields and Family” images are among the greatest social documents of their genre. His barbershop images made in the Mississippi of 1936 and photographs of coal dock workers in Havana will break your heart. So will “Lunchroom Window” and “Posed Portraits.” I can’t describe them; go and see them all at this wonderful affecting event.


And now, on to Bowdoin. Readers of this column would know that it is presenting “Edward Hopper’s Maine,” a landmark review of work accomplished by Hopper in our precincts during the years 1914 through 1929.

Its 90 or so items comprise about two-thirds of Hopper’s visualizations of our hide, many of which have rarely been seen. They include glorious views made of Monhegan and the coast, any number of which extend to architecture. Because of their prominence throughout Hopper’s work, I’ll limit my comments to buildings and a few associated forms.

Hopper loved buildings, and he understood how they are wrapped. By this, I mean that he understood what we absorb when we see a building. Certain of its features represent the building as a whole, and we use them to fill in the details. This is so throughout the watercolors in the exhibition.

There are at least a half-dozen structures in “Two Lights Village,” and many are simply alluded to, but there is no sense of omission. Our experience supplies the missing parts. You’ll find this in the houses in “Lime Rock Railroad,” in “Railroad Crossing, Rockland, Maine” and in “Methodist Church,” among others. Our initial contacts with his buildings are their windows; he gave them to us and often left it to us to fill in the space between them. This may not be Modernism, but it is a provocative way of engaging the viewer.

These thoughts do not apply as handily to the oils. The signal work in the exhibition is the grand “Captain Upton’s House,” and while it pulses somewhat between fully realized features and shrewd omissions, I sense the artist’s delight in pitting the basic solidity of the house against a range of porous details.

I also sense his genius in pitting the house against the great body of the lighthouse. The house is an entity of tight volumes, and does not require the support of or explanation from the light. Hopper emphasizes this by denying the house the intensity available in the late afternoon light and then giving the great shaft a spectral bleach. This is not the brooding stillness of classic Hopper — the light is corporeally there, and it’s a bit spooky.

If you seek classic Hopper — reflective, elegiac solitude, isolation, add your own anthropomorphisms — you’ll find it in the painting “Coast Guard Station.” It revels in its geometry.

In the watercolor “Hill and Houses, Cape Elizabeth, Maine,” Hopper is specific about the land, and uses a sequence of structures rising up the hill and adjoined by a crossed light pole and a lighthouse as invitations to a pilgrimage.

The aforementioned “Two Lights Village” is Maine unsentimentalized. Everyone has tried to do it, but not as well. In “Pemaquid Light,” Hopper succumbed to the site.

In the “Foghorn” pictures, “Lighthouse Village” and a powerful group of shipboard pictures, a tall chimney or other stack is cut off by the edge of the sheet; a pole or other shaft slices through the principal image. The slash toughens the image and contradicts sentiment. For an example, see “Custom House, Portland,” where the light pole shears the Fore Street facade away from the arched Silver Street windows. I would be a chauvinist if I said this watercolor is my favorite work in the show. So, I won’t.

This is a wonderful, select exhibition, and a unique opportunity to see impressions of Maine through a wonderful, select eye.

Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 46 years. He can be contacted at:

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