A new exhibit entitled "Modernism at Bowdoin: American Paintings" was recently installed at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The exhibit features art from the first four decades of the 20th century, and draws on paintings obtained from both the Museum's collection as well as works from the Yale University Art Gallery.
"Unlike exhibitions that have a shorter lifespan and are drawn from different museum collections, we would call this more of an installation, meaning longer-term, not traveling, and focused mainly on our own collection," said Curatorial Assistant Kate Herlihy '08.
Curator Joachim Homann, who wrote an essay about the works, said that the paintings collected illustrate the rapid transformation of American artists as they were polarized by modernity.
"The quest for modern American art inspired innovative artistic work, stirred up critical debates, and mobilized audiences previously indifferent to art," said Homann.
The differing ideas and methods that occurred in the early 20th century is represented by these works of art that portray a story of the progress of America.
"Seen together, the works demonstrate the phenomenal diversity of painting in an era that valued innovation and celebrated progress," said Homann.
An important focus of the exhibit is to correct a common misunderstanding about the history of American modern art, which has often been expressed as the result of progressive encounters of American artists with European Modernism.
"This simplification is unfair to the European immigrants routinely listed as American artists and to the Americans in Europe who contributed to the modern movement in its nascent phase," said Homann. "Both groups of artists are represented here."
For both of these groups, innovation was the method for one to escape from the imprisonment of academic traditions. In order to find how art should be illustrated in the future, these artists studied past art and its underlying meaning in order for their own art to evolve.
The artists of this exhibit focused on painting as their medium for self-expression.
"By developing their own unique vision, the artists would reveal themselves," said Homann. "Painting was a personal engagement with the world as much as it was a public expression of the artist's self."
Some of the works on show at this exhibit range from the "gloomy industrial landscape" of Robert Henri and an intimate portrait by Thomas Eakins, to works by John Sloan that invoke compassion for New York City life as well as maritime landscapes by Wiliiam Glackens, Rockwell Kent and Marsden Hartley.
Other works include Guy Pene du Bois's "Life Soldier" and Marguerite Zorach's "The Family Evening," which are both representative of the standoffish relationship they had with their families during the 1920s.
This newfound relationship between Americans portrayed in these two paintings played on a larger picture that was rooted in both the politics and economics of America at the time. After the end of World War I, American isolationism was reflected in these works of art due to how painters interpreted the new reality around them.
"Which position an artist staked out for him or herself was not only a matter of individual taste or personality, it also was a reflection of the political and economic conditions of the time and the changing expectations of society," said Homann.
Two of the most prestigious works of art, Rockwell Kent's "Into the Sun" and Marsden Harltey's "Into the Storm," portray a more hopeful outlook on life in America.
"Hartley's 'Into the Storm' is one of our most impressive pieces here at the Bowdoin museum," said Herlihy.
The light brush strokes and the brighter colors "infuse the landscape with symbolic power," and result in two very innovative and ambitious pieces of work, explained Herlihy.
The exhibit has become a hotspot for locals of Maine, who have expressed their approval and happiness at the chance to see such new and different innovations of art that hold a similar power over their onlookers.
"I am very impressed with the wide range of art that is provided in this exhibit, they are all so different for such a short time period," said Cynthia Davis, a local resident of Harpswell, Maine, who visited the exhibit.
This wide range of art can be viewed for free at the Boyd Gallery of Bowdoin's College Museum of Art until June 26.