Marin and Hartley and More, O My

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The Portland Museum of Art is spending the summer of 2011 back in the first half of the 20th century, featuring a pair of exhibitions devoted to artists who brought Modernism to the coast of Maine.

Maine Moderns: Art in Sequinland, 1900-1940 (through September 11) is an exhibition of more than 65 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs by artists and photographers who summer around Georgetown and Phippsburg at the mouth of the Kennebec River.

John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury (through October 10) is an exhibition of some 60 oils, watercolors and drawings from the last 21 years of Marin’s life, 1933 to 1953.

Island (Ship's Stern), 1934, watercolor, by John Marin

Island (Ship's Stern), 1934, watercolor, by John Marin

Maine museums seem to endlessly recycle the state’s roster of blue chip artists, among them Homer, Hartley, Marin, Kent, Wyeth and the Zorachs. But what is interesting about this odd couple of shows is that they are something of a refreshing surprise.

The Maine Moderns show is an outgrowth of dissertation research that University of Southern Maine art historian Elizabeth Bischof was doing on Holland Day, a pictorialist photographer active in the Georgetown area. Portland Museum of Art curator Susan Danley attended a lecture Bischof gave at the Georgetown Historical Society and the two women discovered a common interest in the New York artists who came to the area in the early 20th century at the urging of their dealer, legendary photographer Alfred Steiglitz.

Modernism is generally considered an urban phenomenon, one brought to American shores by European émigrés at the turn of the 20th century. In art, Modernism manifested itself as a liberation from simple descriptions and imitations of visual reality. Inspired by advances in psychology, science (relativity) and technology, artists began exploring the more subjective aspects of perception.

Ironically, it was in part the advent of photography that prompted artists to rethink what a painting was and could be. So it is fitting that the jumping off point for the Maine Moderns show are photographs by Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence White and others around Georgetown. The show takes its subtitle from the Seguinland Hotel where White ran a summer photography school. “Seguinland,” however, is not a name that will be familiar to many, not even in Maine.

The Modernists who passed through Seguinland include Max Weber, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Gaston Lachaise, and perhaps most importantly for the history of Maine art, Marguerite and William Zorach. The Zorachs settled in the Robinhood area of Georgetown where their daughter, artist Dahlov Ipcar, lives to this day.

Jotham's Island, oil, 1937, by Marsden Hartley

Jotham's Island, oil, 1937, by Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley, a Maine native and a lonely, peripatetic soul, wandered from one art colony to another, Gloucester, Taos, Ogunquit, Sequinland, before ending his days in the coastal fishing community of Corea.

John Marin sampled the midcoast region, but he eventually settled way downeast on Cape Split in South Addison. What’s refreshing about PMA’s Marin show is that it focuses not on the New York/New Jersey work that made him famous but upon his late work, paintings in which he translated the dynamic natural forces of Maine’s bold coast into increasingly abstract compositions inspired by wind and water, waves, and sunlight.

Movement: Sea, Ultramarine and Green; Sky, Cerulean and Grey, 1947, oil, by John Marin

Movement: Sea, Ultramarine and Green; Sky, Cerulean and Grey, 1947

“Marin sensed the radical potential for his painting on Cape Split,” notes the museum, “the possibility to transform the ephemeral patterns of waves into innovative compositions would forecast some of the primary features and preoccupations of mid-century American art.”

The Marin show is a collaboration between the Portland Museum of Art and Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachsuetts, where it will be on exhibition next year (January 27  to April 1, 2012) after spending the end of the year (November 5th to January 8th) at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

[Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland ME, 207-775-6148.]

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