LEWISTON, Maine – The Museum of Fine Arts has a striking portrait of Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) painted by Milton Avery and done in the final year of Hartley’s life. Avery has few rivals among American painters as a colorist, and the most remarkable thing about the portrait is the dreamy gray-blue of Hartley’s eyes. Yet that marvelousness of shade distracts, or even detracts, as much as it enhances. Or so one concludes after looking at the 25 black-and-white portraits in “The Painter of Maine: Photographs of Marsden Hartley.” The show runs through Oct. 24 at the Bates College Museum of Art. The college is home to the Marsden Hartley Memorial Collection and Archive, from which the show is drawn.
Looking at Hartley’s eyes assisted by Avery’s palette, one can’t help but see them more in aesthetic than emotional terms. Looking at the photographs, which range in date from 1908 to 1943, the sense of emotion is overwhelming. Has anyone ever had sadder eyes? Seriously, they are that gravid with sorrow. Even nattily attired on the beach at Cannes, in 1925, Hartley is unmistakably a lorn, lone creature.
That appearance of sorrow is partly a quirk of physiognomy. Hartley’s eyes were deep-set and hooded. In his 20s, they already had circles under them. More important, Hartley had cause for sorrow. The youngest of nine children and born in Lewiston, he was 8 when his mother died. Hartley’s father remarried and moved to Cleveland when his son was 14, leaving him behind to live alone and work in a shoe factory.
Hartley eventually took up painting. Alfred Stieglitz championed his work. An American Modernist could earn no greater stamp of approval. Hartley traveled to Paris in 1912, then moved on to Berlin. He fell in love with a German army officer, who died in battle shortly after the outbreak of World War I.
The visual power and depth of feeling in one of Hartley’s most famous works, the semi-abstract “Portrait of a German Officer,” testify to the interrelationship of life and art in his work. So do the photographs. Hartley was a man of radical apartness — aesthetic, emotional, sexual, even spiritual. (His devotion to American Transcendentalism makes it a shock to see how much the young Hartley looked like Ralph Waldo Emerson.) These photographic portraits bear eloquent witness to his isolato status.
We’re so familiar with artists’ self-portraits that it comes as something like revelation to see a major American painter shown over a span of years photographically. There are many famous portraits of painters by photographers: Cartier-Bresson’s Matisse with his birds and Bill Brandt’s Francis Bacon beneath a doomy sky. Stieglitz’s many adoring images of Georgia O’Keeffe are the ultimate portrait of a marriage, and the war photographer David Douglas Duncan practically moonlighted as court chronicler for his friend Picasso. But something like the Bates show is unusual, with its emphasis on the painter-subject rather than the quality of the images or identity of the photographers (all but two are anonymous). That unusualness makes the show all the more welcome. The fact that Hartley had such an unprepossessing appearance somehow makes the images all the more revealing — and poignant.
A third of the portraits were taken by George Platt Lynes during a 1943 photo session. Lynes is best known for his glamorous, even glossy commercial and fashion work. Seeing Hartley shot like a Hollywood star, with props and dramatically lit, is startling. It’s even more startling when one learns why a man in military uniform stands in the background of several pictures. He’s Lynes’s assistant. The uniform belonged to a man Lynes with whom had been in love, and who had been killed in the war — the situation Hartley had been in three decades before.
“The Painter of Maine” begins with a photograph that isn’t a portait. It shows Hartley’s Corea, Maine, studio. The building is somewhere between shack and cabin. Were it any more nondescript, it could be a subject for Gary Green. He is one of four photographers in “Points of View,” all looking in highly different ways at the Maine landscape. It, too, runs through Oct. 24.
Green has 14 black-and-white photographs on display from his “Terrain Vague” series — of a tarp-covered fence, empty lots, the sorts of non-spaces whose very ubiquity keeps us from noticing how ubiquitous they are. Green notices. Much in the mode of the New Topographic school of the 1970s, these pictures are uncompromisingly unemphatic. They blend banality and purity in a way that can be transfixing.
David Maisel’s photographs are also black and white: six large (46 inches square) and six small aerial shots of logging sites in western Maine. They present a terrain at once defiled and heroic. The large pictures, in particular, have the look of two-dimensional assemblages made out of matchsticks — they seem that solid and unreal.
Maisel’s trees and logs weirdly chime with the fungal mycelium in Shoshannah White’s work — three biggish photographs, nine smallish, three glass ambrotypes, and a wall blowup. Her exacting renderings look like leafless trees, visually spare and disorienting.
Disorientation is a key element in Jay Gould’s five color photographs, which range in size from 48 inches by 30 inches to 16 inches by 20 inches. A man stands on a plinth — or is the man a statue? — on the edge of a fog bank. Two figures on a rocky Maine shore blur, as if will-o-the-wisps, or extensions of the sea spume. Gould speaks of the influence of science on this work, specifically experimentation, but the effect of these images is more surreal than scientific — summoning mysteries rather than solving them.
THE PAINTER OF MAINE: Photographs of
POINTS OF VIEW: New and Recent Photographs by Jay Gould, Gary Green, David Maisel, and Shoshannah White
At: Bates College Museum of Art, 75 Russell St., Lewiston, Maine, through Oct. 24,
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.