By Jeffrey Ackerman
The term Maine artist and the concept of regionalism are political in the sense that the lines on paper defining these terms are drawn on political maps. It is currently difficult to divorce these topics from the related, bitter cultural divides that are roiling politics, not just in America but across the globe. These conflicts are not new and in fact this archetypal struggle stretches to the birth of human civilization, and is mythologized in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Cain was a farmer, a settler, and Abel a herdsman, a nomad. The story illustrates the real world tensions between settlers and nomads. This polarity plays an important and universal role in how cultures develop and evolve. Settlers organize, become specialists, invent and build. Nomads carry ideas on their backs from one settlement to another. Throughout history, culture has thrived in cities and regions that were advanced, well organized, but that also received travelers, traders and immigrants, and sent their own citizens out into the world, for commercial and cultural purposes.
All over the world this divide between urban globalists and rural nativists is turning bitter, hostile and at times violent. It seems ironic that there is an international movement of isolationist, nativists—they are, ironically, involuntary globalists. Art culture is similarly divided between globalists and regionalists, each with legitimate leanings—pride and love of place pitted against curiosity and openness—and many have no problem situating themselves between these compatible sentiments.
The term regionalism came into use to describe the works of artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry, whose works were generally set up as the antitheses of European modernism. They celebrated rural and working class America at a time when many urban American artists still looked to Europe, ancient and modern. Study in Paris and then the grand tour of Italy were seen as essential to an artistic education for many Americans, and these pilgrims, in turn, set up a view of America as provincial.
The Painter of Maine
Maine’s première regionalist, Marsden Hartley, is a more complicated story, and the works that are considered regionalist came after he established himself as one of America’s most prominent modernists. He made a conscious decision in the 1930’s to become, in his own phrase, the painter of Maine, and landscape painting is naturally at the core of Hartley’s regional identity. In Maine he found a wild nature, untouched by man, which allowed him to express a religious feeling between melancholy and ecstasy. He possessed a knack for discovering a profound beauty in the barren and desolate.
But despite Hartley’s own desire to be the painter of Maine, I cannot see this work through a regional lens. The Maine works have the same mood and feel as his Alpine or New Mexico landscapes, or in his series on the barren rockscapes of Dogtown in Gloucester, Massachusetts. What Hartley found in Maine or in Dogtown was an isolation and solitude that many artists have found in the anonymity of the city. As with much current Maine landscape painting, the appeal is universally broad and the city dweller may even be more in need of Hartley’s portals to the primal than the rustic. Hartley’s sentiments are universal in the most cosmic sense of that word.
Hartley transformed himself into a regionalist defensively. In the jingoist atmosphere of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was criticized as being too European and too modern. Regionalism was seen as true American painting and the preferred mode was realism rather than the imported mode of abstraction, though the most prominent regional artists look incredibly artificial to our modern eyes (and I imagine they likely did then to those not blinded by ideology). But Hartley was not a reluctant convert, and shared some of the nativist, xenophobic tendencies of the pro-American painting camp. The politics of that day pivoted around themes that sound all too familiar. The rural working-man was mythologized as the true American, as opposed to the urban, Europeanized, effete elites.
For that latter type you can insert Jew, but Jew in this context is not an actual Jew, but a stand in for the foreign born, the financial elites, condescending toward the common man. Hartley’s essays implicitly betray his sympathies for this view, and his letters reveal them more explicitly. He had a well-known love affair with a German officer who died in World War I, and Hartley continued to have a love affair with German culture. In 1933-34, he traveled to Germany, where he saw and admired Nazi pageants and parades, and found common ground in the Nazi idealization of the folk. He linked a New England Anglo Saxon heritage to their German roots. Like the Nazis, Hartley was obsessed with youth and beauty as an expression of racial purity. His homosexuality, rather than mitigate his admiration for the Reich, played into a fascist fixation on masculinity, athleticism and male power. Even his admiration for Native Americans was colored by his viewing them as racially pure; he mentions in a letter how the Indians of Mexico would not go near the mixed race mestizo. This was all played down with his many Jewish friends in New York art circles, but Ettie Stettheimer, sister of painter Florine Stettheimer, stopped inviting him to her salon because of what she described as his admiration for Hitler.
Much of Hartley’s nativist attitude was quite common in New England, and all over America, at that time. He lamented that New England was being ruined by commercialism, and the nouveau riche. Criticizing the nouveau riche is different from criticizing the rich; the poor as well as the wealthy Anglo Saxon might use that term to describe a person of moderate wealth, one or two generations removed from immigrant poverty. Their names might still be foreign as well as their accents. Tending to be proud of their achievement, they might display their wealth to the degree that the Boston Brahmin might hide theirs.
It is in Hartley’s quasi-religious paintings of fisherman and loggers that this bias can be detected, and knowing his leanings does affect how these paintings are currently seen and read. The paintings themselves are often striking, but the brilliant paint-handling cannot be divorced from the subject matter. He indeed elicits a real sympathy for the subjects, but in light of the election and recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, these subjects are once again charged. This interpretation was present in the political moment Hartley’s images were first painted, but fell into the background in the intervening years. Saying this, is not to suggest that we should shy away from viewing the works, but rather that we should fully engage with them, because of—not in spite of—their flaws. Great works are inevitably made by flawed humans and contain flawed ideas, and the tension between Hartley’s authentic mysticism and (what we can now see as his) misguided politics make these paintings worth grappling with.
The heroes of these paintings are presented in a Biblical framework; the working-men are Christ-like, or like Christ’s fishermen disciples, and a fishermen’s dinner is clearly read as a last supper. The routine dangers that the loggers and fishermen grapple with make them suitably heroic subject matter. But these occupations were fading even in Hartley’s day, and today they are a smaller part of the Maine economy, though they play an oversized role in Maine’s myth-fed leading industry; tourism. There is a false note in having such figures stand for the region, and that is especially true now. Van Gogh painted his province’s working folk as he found them: a postman, a doctor, as well as farmers and fishermen. American regionalist sentimentality plays into a lie now current on both sides of the political divide—the mythos of the working class. This term is now antiquated and sexist, suggesting masculine physical labor but excluding, teachers, bank tellers, nurses, and other common, modern occupations. Women, exceedingly rare in Hartley’s work, take on a secondary role when they do appear, and the men are depicted in a style of exaggerated masculinity, as in his depiction of a Hercules in a G-string (Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy, 1940). That Hartley shares this quality with Hellenistic sculpture, Michelangelo and Marvel comics does put him in good company, but points out that his men look more like culture than nature.
We cannot blame an artist for painting what they love. That Cezanne chooses to paint his mountain is understandable. But Provence cannot claim Cezanne, who, though a Provencal, influenced modernist painting worldwide, not for what he painted but for how he painted it. That sort of promotional language essentially defines the parochial and provincial character of regionalism.
Hartley very consciously honed in on regional subject matter, but went on to make the dubious claim that even his style was native. Maine has no ruined temples from antiquity, no Romanesque or Gothic churches, and no Renaissance paintings—all of the historical components of Hartley’s, or any Western painter’s, style. Hartley claimed that Albert Pinkham Ryder was the source of this native style, Ryder being a fellow New Englander, born in New Bedford. But Ryder moved to New York City at age twenty and painted allegorical scenes from his imagination. It is a stretch for Hartley to claim him for Maine, but that is how regional thinking sours. Pollack also claimed Ryder as an influence, but considered him the only American painter of note and, in his view, the antithesis of regionalism—a painter who broke free of the parochial traits that Pollack bristled against.
I understand Provincialism to be simply the inability, or conscious refusal, to see an artist in the large context of art history. It is usually associated with geographical isolation, physical remoteness, but it is more of a mental construct, a filter through which the world is viewed. As a mental artifice, provincialism is not confined to geography; there is also temporal provincialism, confining oneself to a time period, usually the present one. The allegiance to stylistic ghettos may be the most common provincialism.
Provincials, whether geographically isolated or isolated by their biases, are slow to get news from outside of their borders and may argue about controversies long settled elsewhere. In Maine, abstractionists and conceptualists battle the heirs of Andrew Wyeth and Fairfield Porter—a faint echo of the controversy surrounding the 1960, abstraction-dominated, Whitney Biennial. Provincialisms also overlap and reinforce each other. Sophistication and education do not guard against parochial thinking. And academia is home to some of the most remote outposts in art culture, completely cut off from the common populace, by language and habits of thought.
In addition to the provincialism of the provinces, there is also the provincialism of capitals and powerful nations, the belief that all of the culture the inhabitants require exists within their borders. The New York school, at the height of its prestige and influence, was a very small town. There are more galleries in Maine today than there were in New York in the 1950’s.
The critic Clement Greenberg is a good example of an art capital provincial. As a champion of the New York School, he defended himself against the charge that he was an ideologue by insisting that he was merely an empiricist, and that the best art of his day was flat and abstract. However, he only seemed to consider artists and galleries within walking distance, or a few subway stops. Europe did not seem to exist for Greenberg. He ignored the north European COBRA painters. Established artists such as Picasso, Giacometti and Balthus were considered old news, though they continued to make often remarkable and relevant work until the end of their lives.
Hipness and cool are also provincial traps. This ideology ranks high all that is currently in fashion, and deems it the coolest. By always focusing on the present trend, the hip never seem to notice how cool the old stuff they ridicule or ignore once was. Related to this is Brooklyn provincialism, and all hip neighborhoods across America are being declared the next Brooklyn. It is a secret hid in plain sight that some of the best artists in Brooklyn have been working, in what is now seen as the style of the moment, for several decades.
Art capitals are often where great art can be seen but not necessarily where it is made. Those currently considered the leading artists of the late 19th century, though connected to the Parisian art capital, did their most significant work in Provence (the original province), Brittany and Tahiti. Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin define that era for us, yet were largely unknown to their Parisian contemporaries and the leading painters of that period are now mostly unknown. That is not to say that the Provencals knew what great painting was happening in their midst. And who can truly claim van Gogh—the Dutch, Parisians, Provencals—all of them and none of them.
Can Maine claim artists like Marsden Hartley? He painted landscapes in Europe and New Mexico and unscrupulous dealers sold his Bavarian mountainscapes as Maine scenes. Does a border really determine who is a Maine artist? The reputations of local artists loom large in their homelands, yet fall into the middle of the pack outside of those locales.
Hartley’s work and subject matter beg comparison with the Italian painter Mario Sironi, a great painter whose work is not well known in this country or even outside of Italy. Sironi was a fascist and so his reputation further suffers for his being on the losing side of World War II. He depicted poor workers in religious attitudes and his barren cityscapes are unquestionably close in spirit to Hartley’s landscapes. Architecture is a point of pride for the Italians, so the city is a nationalist expression of the genius of Italy. Sironi’s work and politics produce the same equivocal response that one might get from Hartley. Both are great painters whose work deserve to be seen and considered in the context of these thorny issues.
Do Italians need to know more about Hartley? Do Mainers need to consider Sironi? Clearly not, but expanding one’s horizons is never a bad thing. It can correct the biases inherent in a regionalist focus. I would reject regionalism, though not regionalist art. For the artist, subject matter based on their passions is laudable, maybe even necessary. But to view art through a regional filter is provincialism, dragging the work into the small context. I do not have to be a believer to appreciate religious art or gospel music, but I do expect the artist—on some level—to be a believer. Hartley professed a creed that many of us might reject, maybe even strongly, but the power of his belief produced authentic and powerful painting.
In the past, many artists came to Maine to paint the landscape, and I contend that by defining the region did a disservice to artists like Robert Hamilton, who did not make Maine paintings. Today, many artists live here for diverse reasons and work in a wide range of artistic styles. To view this art through any regional filter, is unfair to the artists who see themselves in the larger context. I still get a thrill driving over the Piscataqua River Bridge, but that has nothing to do with how I see art or make art.