Idealist views

Three shows at the PMA explore truth
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  August 26, 2009

cupid main

"CUPID" Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866.

The path through my various responsibilities has led me to the Portland Museum several times in recent weeks, and along most of the floors. While passing through the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibit of photography I was struck by thoughts about templates created by dominant illusions, and how a consistent sense of an ideal world flowed through Cameron's work. That thought reached directly into N.C. Wyeth's paintings on a different floor, and, to a lesser extent, into Joyce Tenneson's large Polaroid portraits.

Cameron was born in 1815 in Calcutta, the daughter of an East India Company official. Living in England in comfortable circumstances, she was given a camera by her daughter when she was 48 years old. She jumped directly into the craft, learning the techniques and associating with other photographers.

Her sister Sarah Prinsep hosted a salon where prominent artists and writers of the day would gather, and she was friends with, and took excellent portraits of, many of them, some of which are in this exhibition. The portrait of Alfred Lord Tennyson in monk's garb leads directly to the conceptual framework of Cameron's posed images.

It is these that clearly exhibit Cameron's genius for capturing a sitter at the exact moment in which they personified the ideal that permeated much of Victorian style. She was drawn particularly to the Pre-Raphaelites, and shared with them Ruskin's sense that a spiritual plane existed that was invisible, perfect, and could be reached through the right kind of art.

Cameron did this uncannily well. Her sitters become actors in her transcendental drama. In "Cupid" a nude child holds bow and quiver, and looks to one side with heavily lidded eyes. The eyes and the picture's soft focus project an other-worldly feeling, without gender but still vaguely erotic. The soft expressions and draped clothing of the two women in "The Kiss of Peace" imply a connection outside the quotidian plane of existence. It's a nostalgic look toward some golden, prelapsarian age where truth, love, and beauty govern human affairs.

This template hovered over art and decoration through much of the Victorian world, and can be seen in virtually any statuary or architecture of the period, especially in the United States. One need look no farther than the older parts of the Portland Museum to be thrust right back in that frame of mind.

Or go to the upper floors and look at N.C. Wyeth's paintings. In "Nativity" men in Berber robes look at the child in the manger who doubles as the light source that illuminates the painting. In "Indian Long Thought" a white couple listen to an elderly Indian discourse as he stares into the glowing fireplace. Here again we have the template of an ideal. In the first, the redeemer glows so all will know his special identity. In the latter, Wyeth implies an ideal former world as articulated in this country by James Fenimore Cooper and Thoreau. They were working without much anthropological knowledge but with plenty of faith their imaginations and in the unconscious template that overlaid their assumptions.

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