Thursday, October 18, 2012

Weatherbeaten - Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer, The Artist's Studio in Afternoon Fog, 1894
Winslow Homer was an illustrator who moved to Prouts Neck, Maine and became an artist. 

As of this fall, Homer's studio in Scarborough, Maine has been meticulously restored and is open to the public for guided tours.

Meanwhile, there's a once-in-a-lifetime show of Homer's late marine paintings at the Portland Museum of Art through December, 2012. Homer forever changed American painting with these existential, up-close renderings of the violently sea-battered shore near Portland, Maine.

Winslow Homer, Eastern Point, 1900

Homer's unflinching images of unsentimentalized natural forces carried landscape painting past the majestic "views" of the Hudson River Style, the aqueous mysticism of Tonalism, and the anecdotal narratives of illustration. 

One could argue that these works succeed in establishing a new degree of relevance for perceptually based landscape painting on the eve of Modernism's arrival in America. It's possible to feel in these paintings a kindred sense of grappling with impersonal forces indifferent to humanity that one finds in post-war abstraction and even some of the abstract expressionists.

The anchor image for the Portland show is a painting that's been titled "Weatherbeaten," although Homer himself gave it the title "Storm Beaten" when it left his studio.

Weatherbeaten, by Winslow Homer, 1894
It's not just the absence of figures or even the force of the crashing wave in Weatherbeaten that gives this painting its haunting power. It's how Homer bars our way in with that thick, blunt slab of boulder jammed up horizontally against the picture plane. It's also the angle of the exploding wave against the diagonally converging stones that would seem to slide ponderously from left to right, smashing into the smaller opposed stones in the righthand corner, were it not that Homer has invested them all with so much weight and inertia.

Homer's understated colors comprise a symphonic poem of cool and warmer grays, and the high degree of contrast in the values punches up the dramatic volume. Close examination of the surface finds Homer describing a surprisingly varied catalogue of different kinds of sea-spray, mist, and foam. Homer's wave crash doesn't just explode vertically; it puts the canvas in motion by showing how strongly the stormy wind is sweeping from left to right.

Weatherbeaten's dynamic tension.
The theme of the painting's underlying abstract design is tension. Visual elements pull in contradictory directions, horizontally from left to right and vertically from down to up. Lines slide, slam, lift, jolt and collide, converging on a center neither rock nor water but over-spilling whiteness (foam) from which two tiny dark masses (stone) struggle to assert themselves. Beneath its surface, Weatherbeaten rhythmically enacts the clash of Titanic forces for which the ocean's ceaseless hammering against the rocks is the archetypal enactment.

It's the Sublime of Church and Thomas Cole's wilderness paintings finally free of the trappings of European Romanticism. These paintings confront the viewer with a landscape no longer tenable as a symbol of the transcendental divine or otherworldly. This is realism pulled up hard against a wall of broken rock and cold, shattering ocean - a hard, material confrontation with insensible matter.

Homer's Prout's Neck studio is open in the spring and fall only, and tours have to be booked in advance. Consisting of some 35 oils and watercolors on loan from all over America and the world, the Portland Museum of Art's "Weatherbeaten, Winslow Homer and Maine" stays up until Dec. 30, 2012.

Don't miss Sebastian Smee's review of the exhibition in the Boston Globe.