The exhibition opening Saturday might surprise viewers who think they know the Maine artist.
If you think you know Bernard Langlais, think again.
This week, the Colby College Museum of Art opens a retrospective exhibition about the Maine-born artist that reveals him as bold, imaginative and playful, and someone willing to experiment in many styles of artistic expression.
Langlais was best known for making large-scale wooden sculptures of animals, which he assembled and carved at his farm in Cushing from scrap wood, found objects, buoys and industrial pattern molds.
Those sculptures of seabirds, lions, bears and other animals and wildlife can be found across the state – and Colby is showing dozens of them in the exhibition, simply titled “Bernard Langlais.”
The show, which opens Saturday and is on view into the winter, also includes his early-career paintings, wood reliefs and ink drawings.
“I think this exhibition will be a revelation, especially for people who think they know Langlais,” said museum director Sharon Corwin. “They’ll see a range of work that is far more diverse than they might have realized.”
Colby is calling this the summer of Langlais. The museum exhibition is the centerpiece of a statewide focus on Langlais and his artistic legacy.
In partnership with the Kohler Foundation, the museum has given hundreds of Langlais works of art to more than 50 museums, schools, libraries and parks across Maine.
They are linked by the Langlais Art Trail, which connects visitors to all the places in Maine where his art can be seen. Langlais died in 1977. His widow, Helen, died in 2010, and left the artist’s estate to Colby, which has long supported Langlais.
Colby worked with Kohler to document and distribute the works, which numbered more than 3,000.
When that job is finished, the estate in Cushing will be turned over to the Georges River Land Trust.
Langlais is best known for the 62-foot Abenaki Indian in Skowhegan, though his most beloved sculptures involve farm animals and wildlife. This exhibition traces his evolution as an artist, from his adolescent interest in the graphic arts, his early roots as a painter and his abstract wood reliefs that established him as a successful New York artist.
Unwilling to live within the confines of art-world expectations, Langlais returned to his native Maine in the mid-1960s and began making three-dimensional wooden sculptures and masterful ink drawings.
Langlais has received many museum exhibitions in Maine over the years. The Portland Museum hosted one in 2002, and Colby has shown his work as recently as 2007. This exhibition goes deeper, because it includes many examples of his work from throughout his 30-year career, said curator Hannah Blunt.
Blunt moved on to the Langlais estate after Helen Langlais died in 2010. She began digging through the barns and outbuildings. Many of the larger pieces – bears, moose, horses, giraffes and even over-sized human forms – were left in open fields, arranged almost as a zoo without confines.
She found objects covered with dirt and mouse droppings and affixed to the sides of barns. She spent most of the past four years documenting everything and working with Kohler to arrange their conservation.
Colby kept nearly 200 pieces among the 3,000 or so on the estate. The museum exhibition includes about 125 objects. Of those, a dozen or so were borrowed from other institutions. Otherwise, everything came from Colby’s collection, Blunt said.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, so viewers can follow Langlais’ development as an artist. They will see how his oil landscapes and early figurative paintings gave way to his abstract expressions in wood, which became a stepping stone for his larger painted wood sculptures and, eventually, back to works on paper.
Blunt described Langlais’ career as a series of U-turns and sea changes, all linked by his love of Maine and his Maine roots. His success in New York allowed him to come home to Maine, to what Blunt described as “familiar and intuitive materials.”
He was born in a logging community, and never lost touch with his roots or his upbringing, she said.
He once wrote that he felt “a sense of oneness” with the state.
Coming home to Maine, to a place on the river with space to experiment with size and scale, allowed him to realize an artistic vision bounded only by his imagination, Blunt said.
WHERE: Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill Drive, Waterville
WHEN: Opens Saturday, on view through Jan. 4; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free
INFO: 859-5600 or colby.edu/academics_cs/museum