STRUGGLE IN PAINT: "After the Storm, Vinalhaven," by Marsden Hartley, 1938-39.
From the outside the new Bowdoin College Museum of Art doesn’t look all that different from the original Walker Art Building designed by McKim, Mead and White and built in 1894. On the inside, though, it feels like a much larger museum has been magically folded into the fine old neo-classical structure. The architects for the renovation, Machado and Silvetti Associates, have done a remarkable job.
Bowdoin College Museum Of Art | Bowdoin College, Brunswick | Tue-Wed & Fri-Sat 10 am-5 pm; Thu 10 am-8:30 pm; Sun noon-4:30 pm | Free | 207.725.3275
There is now 60 percent more exhibition space, more storage, teaching space, offices, and careful climate control on the inside. The entrance has been moved to the end of the building in a glass and bronze pavilion allowing museum access from the college quad and the public sidewalk. The museum is open to the community outside the college, and has generous open hours and no admission fee.
On a recent visit, wandering at random through the galleries, one highlight for me was a lovely Arshile Gorky untitled abstract drawing from 1947. In his own quiet way Gorky was instrumental in the development of abstraction in America, and this drawing is a good example why.
The Gorky was near an untitled ink drawing by Franz Kline. Kline’s reputation has gone from being thought over-rated to now, when he is under-rated, in my opinion. This little black piece is a lot better than it seems at first glance.
Speaking of over-rated, there was an Andy Warhol print of Mao and a comic-book print by Roy Lichtenstein. The farther I get from the ‘60s, the less interesting those two artists become, except for the fact they are famous enough to still be collected. Kiki Smith is another artist with an out-sized reputation, here represented by a large work on paper.
Nearby there’s an excellent version of the famous “The Tribulations of St. Anthony,” a Martin Shongauer engraving from about 1470 showing St. Anthony beset by some very ugly and ferocious demons.
Across the room there’s a small piece of irony blended with nastiness by Betye Saar and one of Kara Walker’s characteristic big silhouettes, both reflections on the politics of race. These well-known artists are seldom seen in Maine.
There are three significant sculptures in the rotunda, all bronze. The Joel Shapiro piece is, as far as I know, the only one of his bronze works on view in Maine, as is the excellent figure by Alberto Giacometti. The Rodin nude sculpture of Balzac is an earlier, smaller version of what ended up as a famous large figure wrapped in monk’s robes.
It was good to see a favorite of mine from pre-renovation visits, Henderik van Vliet’s oil painting “The Tomb of Admiral Jacob Van Wassenaer in the Choir of the Jacobskerk in the Hague,” from 1667. This highly detailed, carefully painted picture depicts a Dutch family with children and dog contemplating, no doubt for edification, an ornate baroque tomb in a large white church interior.
Another favorite in the permanent collection is Marsden Hartley’s “After the Storm, Vinalhaven” from 1938-39. Hartleys from this period are often pretty difficult paintings, and this is a tough one. It grants no easy handles to approach it, yet it bears the unmistakable aura of truth achieved through struggle.
It’s worth a visit to this building just to see the Assyrian panels in their new, permanent gallery with glass walls on the Park Row side of the building. These panels were carved about 3000 years ago. For me it is always moving to be in the presence of a work of art of such great antiquity. I can’t of course, read the cuneiform script, nor understand the politics or religion of the period of King Ashurnasirpal II (or, for that matter, of present-day Iraq, where these came from), but I can relate to a work of art made by an unknown artist so long ago and so far away. It’s a powerful bond across time and distance, and worth revisiting for renewing one’s faith in the power of art.
Ken Greenleaf can be reached at