Celebrating Thoreau at 200 with eye-opening shows
CONCORD — This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau: author of “Walden,” patron saint of civil disobedience, founding father of US environmentalism. Thoreau was also a lifelong Concord resident. The Concord Museum, which has the largest extant collection of Thoreauviana, is mounting a yearlong series of bicentennial exhibitions and programs.
The first two are “Walden: Four Views/Abelardo Morell” and “The Anatomy of a Desk: Writing With Thoreau and Emerson.” They run through Aug. 20.
“Walden: Four Views” suits its subject, managing to be both small and immense. The show consists of four photographs. Now, that’s small. Morell took them last year. The immensity comes not just in the size of those photographs — they start at 4 feet by 5 feet — but also in how they ponder, as Thoreau’s book does, nature, solitude, and the passage of the seasons.
A classic New England kettle pond, Walden is all of 62 acres — not exactly oceanic. Yet it’s also, Thoreau suggested, “earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Those words ostensibly refer to lakes. But Walden is Thoreau’s model: mundane in the landscape, mighty in the mind.
Morell understands that duality. As he puts it, “The form of the pond is set, but the possibility of finding a new variety of worlds within it is endless and open to new eyes.” There’s a further duality, of image and text. Each picture gets an accompanying passage from Thoreau. This is welcome twice over (another duality): as enlargements of the image, not that any are needed, and as reminders of what superb, tangy prose Thoreau wrote, not that reminding’s needed, either.
A body of water is defined by the land around it, and “Walden: Pond Map on Ground” looks down at the ground. The shape of the pond in a splotch of white — is it lime? — lies on soil, twigs, and a scattering of leaves. Vegetation meets abstraction, since that’s what any map is. Yet it’s a funny kind of abstraction, rendering as it does a (literal) shape of geographic reality.
Visual abstraction, or near abstraction, informs “Walden: Waters From Pond and the Ganges River Mingling — Cliché Verre Print.” In French cliché verre means “glass picture.” It involves photographic paper, a glass plate, and ink. The resulting image appears to be part photograph, part drawing or etching. Cross-hatchings and curves fill the “Walden” image. The flow of lapping water? The hummocks of pond ice? The indeterminacy enhances the effect.
The most lyrical of the four, “Walden: Woods and Pond” offers a frieze of trunks and branches, the bosky solidity balanced by the softness of mist.
“Walden: Pond/Tent Camera Image” is the one color photograph, and the most direct rendering of the pond proper. Morell shows the glorious blue of the water as if behind a scrim of spattered droplets. So direct isn’t quite the right word. There’s a visual something between viewer and water. But that’s as it should be, since indirection is Morell’s aim. He seeks to evoke his already richly described subject rather than himself describe it. Like Thoreau, he’s most interested in the Walden of the imagination, not the Walden of hydrological chart or topographical survey.
Not that Thoreau objected to surveying. He counted it among his occupations. Another was teaching. His desk, which is on display at the museum, looks as if it could have come from a schoolhouse. That’s because it did: from the school he and his brother John ran in Concord for three years. The desk has a hinged, angled top. Utterly lacking in ornament, it was meant for business. Its battered state further attests to that.
The museum owns both the desk and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing chair — a standard Windsor chair with an enlarged flat surface on one arm. In honor of the Thoreau bicentennial, it’s commissioned replicas. Both originals and copies are on display. Visitors are encouraged to use the latter. Sit, write, cogitate, daydream. Who knew that interactivity could include apps made of wood?
WALDEN: FOUR VIEWS/ABELARDO MORELL
THE ANATOMY OF A DESK: Writing With Thoreau and Emerson
At Concord Museum, 53 Cambridge Turnpike, Concord, through Aug. 20. 978-369-9763, www.concordmuseum.org