There is a bunch of great exhibitions at Bowdoin College right now! From Renaissance paintings to abstract works by a contemporary Danish artist, the variety and quality of art on view is impressive. There are even caribou antlers involved.
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is currently exhibiting “Unity & Fragmentation: Selections from the Permanent Collection” (through June 2), “Transformative Gestures: Paintings of the Renaissance” (through June 2), and “Per Kirkeby: Paintings & Sculpture” (through July 14). The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum in the college’s Hogwarts-esque Hubbard Hall is showing “Animal Allies: Inuit Views of the Northern World” and “Spirits of Land, Air, and Water: Antler Carvings from the Robert and Judith Toll Collection.”
The “Unity & Fragmentation” exhibition was inspired by the Per Kirkeby show. Kirkeby focused on the significance of paint’s color, texture, and composition, rather than narrative subject matter. This philosophy is applied to the works from the college’s permanent collection that are on display. The paintings are grouped together in ways that encourage viewers to compare works that are seemingly unrelated to each other, and to ponder each piece’s “formal attributes” in a new context.
John D. MacLaughlin’s 1950 “Abstraction” is hung next to Marsden Hartley’s “After the Storm, Vinalhaven: (1938-39). “Abstraction” is, appropriately enough, an abstract work comprised of large blocks of solid color, whereas Hartley’s piece is an expressive scene of a rocky bit of Maine coastline. How do they relate? For one, the black, white, and dove grey palette are echoed in the Hartley piece. Hartley painted his rocks with a thick black outline, mirroring the strong black element in MacLaughlin’s piece.
Another example is the pairing of “Shipwreck” (1790) by Robert Freebairn and “Hercules Battling the Amazons” by Gustave Dore. “Shipwreck” is a large canvas filled with high drama: violent seas, the ghostly apparitions of great ships in the darkness. Dore’s painting is small, but like “Shipwreck,”it is full of emotion. They are both painted with a softness and beauty, despite the ferocity of the scenes. The sea spray in “shipwreck” relates to the wispy, windswept quality of the paint in Dore’s piece.
It was such fun to compare the works in this way. I think it allows viewers a chance to notice aspects of the art that they may not have noticed before.
“Transformative Gestures” is a small, but stunning exhibition. Renaissance artists were masters in giving form to the mystical and spiritual. The skill of the artists is staggering. I was fortunate enough to visit Italy a couple years ago, where I was able to see many Renaissance pieces. This exhibition brought back those memories, and reminded me of some of the things I learned about the culture of that era. Religion was extremely important to Italian society at the time. The devotion and passion those people felt is evident in their art.
Another small exhibition, “Sense of Scale, Measure by Color: Art, Science, & Mathematics of Planet Earth,” is strategically placed before viewers head up to the Kirkeby show. Beautiful images of the Arctic landscape are presented along with samples of glittering minerals. The colors, structures, and sale of Arctic geology are a huge inspiration for Kirkeby. It is great to get a sense of an artist’s inspirations before experiencing their work.
Kirkeby’s paintings are very textural, with touches of impasto and gestural brushstrokes. His work also features jarring use of color, with unexpected pairing of vivid color punctuating neutral backgrounds. His abstract compositions clearly reference his interest in geology, but there several paintings that represent other ideas. One piece that I liked was “Untitled” (2009), an enormous canvas depicting three horses: one red, one yellow, and one green.
I think Bowdoin’s Arctic Museum is a hidden gem. I’ve long been fascinated by Arctic art, culture, and exploration. The “Animal Allies” exhibit, which I visited last year, is wonderful. Animals are vital to the daily and spiritual lives of the Inuit. This shines through the art they create.
A new exhibition, “Spirits of Air, Land, and Water,” presents gorgeous antler carvings. Some of the artists used the natural forms of the antlers to give their carvings shape, while others used it as a raw material, carving away until a more representative form was revealed.
These carvings demonstrate a major characteristic of the Inuit: they do not waste anything. They have great respect for nature, and are careful to use every material at their disposal. The carvings also illustrate the rich spiritual lives of the Inuit. Shamans, spirits, and joyful celebrations are all represented in these beautiful carvings.
Definitely take some time to explore the arts at Bowdoin! There is such a variety of art on display that you’re sure to get an education without having to enroll. And as a bonus, both museums are free, unlike tuition.