Of Whales in Paint

October 15, 2016 to December 31, 2016
from Moby Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville. Lakeside Press, Chicago. 1930. Illustrated by Rockwell Kent. © 2005, The Plattsburgh State Art Museum

Of Whales in Paint: Rockwell Kent’s Moby-Dick surveys three generations of American artists taking on Herman Melville’s famous story of Captain Ahab’s search for the white whale. Beginning with Rockwell Kent’s iconic black-and-white illustrations for the 1930 publication of Moby-Dick, the exhibition considers how makers in the 20th and 21st centuries have responded to Melville’s text and used it to explore the most pressing artistic and social questions of their times. Since its publication in 1851, Moby-Dick has been a touchstone for artists from Frank Stella to Elaine Reichek, and has inspired responses in a variety of media, particularly after the resurgence of the book’s popularity in the 1930s.

Kent, in particular, was spellbound by the tale of adventure and eventual catastrophe at sea. One of the 20th century’s greatest painters and illustrators, the artist produced 280 ink drawings between 1926 and 1930 for a limited-edition printing of Moby-Dick published by Lakeside Press. Translated into lithographs, Kent’s beautifully pared-down drawings offer renderings of particular scenes; taxonomic illustrations of whales and whaling implements; and depictions of the open ocean. Having survived a 1929 shipwreck off the coast of Greenland, Kent knew the beauty and the danger of the sea intimately, and his illustrations hauntingly capture the feelings of isolation and loneliness endemic to the sailor’s life. While charting the lives and fortunes of one single ship and its crew, these drawings also conjure the infinite scale of the ocean and the creatures that inhabit it. 

Since Rockwell Kent’s iconic illustrations of Moby-Dick first appeared in 1930, American printmakers, painters, and craftsmen have taken the novel as a jumping-off point to explore the artistic and social issues relevant to their own moments in history. Herman Melville’s illustrative prose invites visual interpretation and has inspired works of seemingly endless variety. The central struggles of man versus nature and fate versus free will have provided ample opportunities for those artists willing to take on the challenge of this famously long book and its universal themes. Some artists remain faithful to Melville’s text by illustrating particular scenes and characters, while others capture aspects of the narrative in more abstract terms. For printmakers of the 1960s and ’70s, new advances in color lithography allowed them to render psychological portraits of the novel’s characters. Other artists stretched the narrative potential of abstraction to harness the emotional power of Melville’s writing. Contemporary makers have envisioned the text by using the book as a physical object and have created works that address issues of race and gender, which are present but largely unexplored in the novel.

Generously supported by The Wintersteen Family.

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