Cornell’s ‘Priority of Nature’ On View in Portland Gallery Show

Thomas Cornell, "Farm Pig," 1974, engraving.

Thomas Cornell, “Farm Pig,” 1974, engraving.

An exhibition of works by Thomas Cornell, Bowdoin’s Richard E. Steele Artist-in-Residence, who worked for 50 years at the College before his death in December 2012, is currently being shown at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland. The Priority of Nature, a collection of prints, will be on display through September 27, 2013. Author and art critic Martica Sawin pays tribute to Cornell in an essay she composed in conjunction with the show.

Before his death last December, Thomas Cornell had completed 50 years as a faculty member in the Bowdoin College Art Department. He arrived at Bowdoin in 1962 with a reputation based on his prodigious skill as a printmaker.

His earliest series of etchings of monkeys, executed for a book of selections from Thomas Huxley’s History of the Manlike Apes, had already been singled out for purchase by William Lieberman, then curator of prints and drawings at the Museum of Modern Art.

Thomas Cornell

Thomas Cornell

Viewing the current exhibition, which focuses on the exquisitely executed etchings and lithographs from Cornell’s first decade of printmaking, it is difficult to imagine that they were produced by the same artist who became known in subsequent decades as a painter of large multifigured allegorical works in a classical tradition, paintings that were characterized as belonging to the post-modern classicism of the 1980s.

Yet there is a philosophical undercurrent that links the different phases of his artistic production, a philosophy that might be considered as having begun with the influence of Thomas Huxley’s words:

In view of the intimate relations between Man and the rest of the living world and between the forces exerted by the latter and all other forces. I can see no excuse for doubting that all are coordinated terms of Nature’s great progression, from the formless to the formed — from the inorganic to the organic — from blind force to conscious intellect and will.

Accordingly, Cornell’s images of a monkey’s head, or a goat, turtle, or pig, are expressions of his holistic view of nature just as much as his late mural-size paintings of figures at leisure in shorefront bathing scenes. His view of the continuity binding all living creatures to each other and to the environment on which they depend underlies the concern for social justice that led to his brilliant 1960s portrait drawings of heroic reformers such as Gracchus Babeuf and Frederick Douglass, and to a multi-canvas anti-Vietnam War painting, The Dance of Death.

His egalitarian advocacy of a kind of humanitarian socialism became allied with the mythological figure of Dionysos — two 1969 prints, Dionysian Composition #1 and #2 represent his transition to the complex scenes of figures in nature that forecast the later large-scale paintings.

Cornell grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with no thought of becoming an artist. He entered Amherst College intending to specialize in physics, but in the summer following his sophomore year he took a figure- drawing course at the Cleveland Institute of Art that caused him to change his major to art.

Drawing and printmaking were his areas of concentration, and in his senior year he began working with the noted printmaker Leonard Baskin at nearby Smith College. He then attended the Yale School of Art and Architecture and taught for two years at the University of California at Santa Barbara before coming to Maine to start the studio art program at Bowdoin.

From the outset Cornell followed a path that diverged sharply from the highly publicized art movements of the day, i.e., Abstract Expressionism and its antithesis Pop Art. Instead he became a consummate craftsman, as one can see in his mastery of various printmaking techniques —etching, drypoint, lithography and engraving — and took as his models the classicism of Poussin and the Bacchanalian streak in Titian.

Although he generally kept to the traditional black and white of the print medium, he achieved a full and sometimes dramatic tonal range and variation of texture that give density and richness to these small works.

Since the dawn of art animals, whether worshipped or hunted, have had an iconic standing in art. Cornell’s portrayals dignify his subjects with a recognition of their individual existence, their age-old traits, their significance as co-tenants of the planet.

Whether we are seeing the anguished head of a monkey or the fox’s inscrutable stare or the graceful stance of a goat, there is a sense of kinship rooted deep in the human psyche, a sense of the continuity of the life force that Cornell devoted himself to celebrating in his art.

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