Thomas Cornell passed away last December after having taught in the Bowdoin College art department for 50 years.

Cornell, in fact, founded Bowdoin’s fine arts program.

June Fitzpatrick Gallery’s exhibition of Cornell’s work, “The Priority of Nature,” is a surprisingly bold show not only because of Cornell’s bristling work, but because Fitzpatrick chose to reach back with a focus on his prints from the 1960s.

More recently, Cornell had been making larger paintings whose relationship to classical art was more based in narrative structure than content. And at its most powerful, Cornell’s classicism always rode an indulgently subversive dark horse.

These prints are postcards from the edge — like artifacts from expeditions into the unmappable id or broken shards of our collective memories.

What makes this work so instantly compelling is the sheer brilliance of Cornell’s technique. His drawing is apt, and his mastery of print techniques seems preternatural.

His early works relating to Thomas Huxley’s “History of the Manlike Apes” greet the viewer with an uncanny wallop.

Some of these were too much for me at first, so I had to come back to them. I was glad I did, however, because “Old Monkey” (1959-60) is a masterwork of texture and psychological impact. That Cornell studied with Leonard Baskin, America’s greatest printmaker, is readily and impressively apparent.

Revisiting the squatting “Old Monkey,” I then saw the extraordinary depth of the tonal layers, including dark punctuating marks within the print that look like ink strokes that were added later. (Although it hardly matters if they are).

“Old Monkey” is listed as a sugar lift aquatint and drypoint. (Drypoint is the basic technique of scratching directly into the metal plate with a stylus. Aquatint is a ground that doesn’t cover the entire plate like most etching; a sugar lift is a richly-toning additional layer that has to be washed off before the acid bath — hence the term “lift.”)

What matters here are not the specifics of the techniques, but Cornell’s tonal range and technical virtuosity. Even if you aren’t familiar with print techniques, Cornell’s fascination with their visual vocabularies is apparent. It appears he could do virtually anything, and that frontloads his choices with an unusual reservoir of depth.

The squatting “Old Monkey” doesn’t feign verisimilitude, but it feels psychologically real. In turn, this is why the fiercely angry and aged “Monkey” (1959) was too much for me even on my second and third passes. Few artists are capable of that kind of power.

Cornell’s animals — particularly the domesticated goat and pigs — tap into something essential and basic, but their approachability allows them to more easily offer up their virtuosity of technique and draftsmanship.

“Goat I” (1969), for example, is a lithograph (wax on a stone matrix) of extreme contrast between the white animal and the black background. Cornell’s swooping lines drawn with the litho crayon and his dark-drenched swipes of the brush create a boldly clear image packed with a surprising depth of mark-making detail.

Cornell’s pigs are my favorite pieces in the show. His 1960 “Wild Pig” is an engraving of extraordinary clarity and quality (it would make D? proud), while his sugar lift aquatint “Pig (also called Boar)” is a dark silhouette that reaches for a fierce, archetypal wildness. The inky surface is a smoldering marvel of texture.

Two prints of snapping turtles bookending a frog are likely to be the crowd pleasers. These not only highlight Cornell’s ability to draw, but also his use of states in printing.

“Snapping Turtle, 2nd State” (1968-69) is a dark-surfaced etching and aquatint from which the swimming turtle emerges. The other is an early state relying simply on a few gracefully drawn lines.

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:

[email protected]


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