By Stephen May
PORTLAND, MAINE – Bernard Langlais, one of the most intriguing figures in Maine’s storied art history and one of the finest, under-appreciated American sculptors of the Twentieth Century, is the subject of a large and welcome exhibition in his native state. “Bernard Langlais: ,” on view at the Portland Museum of Art through June 9, was organized by museum curator Aprile Gallant.
It features 57 wood sculptures and 13 works on paper, in both abstract and figurative styles, that reflect Langlais’s talent, humor, love of life and affection for animals and people. A handsome, illustrated catalog, with useful essays, adds to this rewarding tribute to a skilled, ambitious and idiosyncratic artist.
Langlais (1921-1977), known affectionately as “Blackie,” was born of French-Canadian parents in Old Town, Maine, the oldest of ten children. He came to his affection for working with wood naturally: his father was a carpenter who taught him to work with his hands and with tools, and the Old Town area had a long tradition of logging, lumber mills and woodworking factories.
As a child, his artistic instincts were encouraged by an aunt who sent him art books and drawing supplies. Although he had no formal art training, by the time he graduated from high school he had decided to become an artist.
After studying commercial art in Washington, D.C., for a time, he enlisted in the Navy in World War II. Classified as a painter, he worked along side fine artists, commercial artists, illustrators and house painters, painting everything from ships and planes to portraits of officers.
After a half dozen years in the military, in 1948 Langlais used the GI Bill to study at Washington’s Corcoran School of Art. He won several scholarships to spend summers at the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture, where he changed his career goal from commercial to fine art.
Subsequently, at the Brooklyn Museum School he studied with celebrated German émigré Max Beckmann and later with abstract painter William Kienbusch, a summer resident of Maine. By the early 1950s, Langlais was in Paris taking further art courses. Influenced by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian’s style, he tried his hand at abstract painting.
In 1954 Langlais became the first American artist to go to Norway on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the work of Expressionist artist Edvard Munch. While in Oslo he married fellow Mainer Helen Friend, who became his lifelong partner, supporter and muse. She continues to this day as a devoted champion of his work and legacy.
Returning to the States, the Langlais plunged into the New York art scene, which by the mid-1950s was alive with Abstract Expressionism. He soon mounted the first of several painting shows at the Roko Gallery, where his brightly colored, abstract landscapes of Norway and Maine and still lifes drew favorable comment from the New York Times and major art magazines.
A number of these early paintings, featuring bold patterns and vivid colors, were exhibited two years ago at the New O’Farrell Gallery in Brunswick, Maine. Original, energetic and striking, they suggested that Langlais could have made a successful career as an oil painter. Instead, he turned to a medium in which he made unusual contributions: wood sculpture.
Langlais’s experiments with the aesthetic uses of wood began after 1956, when he bought a summer cottage in Cushing, Maine. While renovating the property, he discovered how much he enjoyed the artistic challenges and physical demands of creating art out of wood. In addition to wood readily available in Maine, in New York City he lived and worked over a lumberyard that provided ready access to all kinds of wood in various shapes and sizes.
As a result of what he called his “awakening,” Langlais began using scraps of wood to create abstract wall reliefs that were shown to considerable acclaim in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His work was included in a major assemblage exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1961 and in one-man shows at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1961 and the Allan Stone Gallery in 1962.
More than the relatively passive, intellectual activity of painting, Langlais relished the drilling, sawing, gouging and nailing – and painting – aspects of creating artworks out of wood. “Painting,” he said, “is 90 percent intellectual and ten percent physical, but using wood is closer to even.” In an early work, “Nice Figure” (1960), he combined paint and wood in an abstract image apparently based on a human model.
When he started out, Langlais tended to let the shape and texture of the wood and its natural colors predominate in assemblages like “Heap Big Chief” (circa 1957-59) and “untitled (Cat)” (circa 1957-59). As curator Gallant observes in the catalog, “Working with this new medium allowed Langlais the opportunity to use all of his training in composition, color and draftsmanship in an intuitive, rather than deliberate, fashion.”
As he gained confidence, Langlais became more assertive, introducing carving and sculptural elements into finished objects, and beginning to depict animals, which eventually came to dominate his output. In wood reliefs such as “Forenoon” (1961-77), he used graphite and oil paint to provide the background for the animal. Similarly, “Gull on a Pile” (1961), from the Colby College Museum of Art, offers a fairly realistic image of the bird in a composition combining wood and metal against a painted backdrop.
Contrasts between his assemblage approach and works with a more sculptural style are evident in a number of works in the exhibition. “Arrivederci Roma” (1961), an aerial view of the city formed by inlaying pieces of wood, differs from “Hero Worship” (1961), which features an aggressive cutout in the center that emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the work. Observes Gallant, “The titles of these works are typically open, allowing the viewing to invent a context for the visual elements in each piece. Despite this, they remain primarily nonobjective.”
Working with feverish intensity, he turned out a large number of sculptures in the 60s and 70s. As he experimented with what he called “painting on wood,” Langlais gradually shifted his focus from three-dimensional abstractions in wood to figurative images.
In concentrating on representational objects he turned his back on the abstract work that was all the rage in New York. Ever independent and eager to experiment with different styles and techniques, he utilized recognizable subjects, as in “Bathers” (circa 1962) and “Woman in the Window” (1962), the latter employing toothpicks as decorative elements.
Before long he tired of trying to express human personalities in sculpture and, as he put it in 1971, “discovered that working with animals gives me greater freedom of expression. People are too specific as subjects, too limiting. Animals are more general.” “The Lion” (1963) and two versions of “Eagle” (circa 1963-64 and circa 1964) show him at his best as a sculptor of animals and birds.
Moving to more spacious quarters in Manhattan in 1963, he was able to create much larger and generally realistic works, such as the exquisitely crafted “Noon Exercise” (1963), a jaunty horse image measuring 116 by 88½ inches, from the Portland Museum’s collection. Nearly as gigantic are “Animal Farm” (1963), a wood relief owned by The Art Institute of Chicago, and “My Jungle” (circa 1963) from the Zoological Society of Philadelphia.
“From My Window” (circa 1965), with colorful vignettes of 20 birds, reflects his growing commitment to simplified views of the animal kingdom, and his interest in subjects he found around his summer place in Maine. “[I]nspired by the variety of birds easily viewed from his studio in Cushing, ‘From My Window’…exemplifies the dramatic change in Langlais’s work that nonetheless combines the strengths of his life as a painter, an abstract sculptor and a maker of realistic animal figures,” writes Gallant in the catalog. It “is the perfect resolution of Langlais’s desire not to be ‘pigeon-holed,’ and it heralds the increasing strength of his work in Maine,” she concludes.
In 1966, having purchased 80 additional acres with a house and barn adjacent to his cottage in Cushing, the Langlais moved to Maine to live full-time. Thereafter, he took advantage of the freedom afforded by his spacious grounds and large barn to make enormous, memorable works, both wall reliefs and outdoor figures.
Langlais’s later works, created in Maine, are infused with his warmth, strength, skill and wit. His special affection for animals gives these objects unusual appeal and often human-like qualities. As art critic Carl Little writes in his catalog contribution, “Langlais’s animals are personable, self-confident, amusing and endearing; few viewers, whatever age they may be, can resist them.”
“Puffin” (1976) and “Seated Dog” (1976) are particularly winning examples of his late animal work. His circa 1974 depiction of a porcupine and 1974 image of a grasshopper are marvels of skilled carving and attention to essential characteristics.
Among the highlights of his animal art are sculptural versions of the lion, his favorite animal. Observed his wife, Helen, “He looked something like a lion, [with] that mane of hair always flying.” Moreover, as Langlais said, “I’ve done well over a hundred lions…, perhaps because I was born under the sign of Leo the Lion.” The lion faces in “Father and Son” (circa 1970) are especially wonderful.
While Langlais’s lions and other animals tend to be simplified and unusually charming, they are hardly the work of a folk or naïve artist. He was, after all, an extensively trained professional. As Little points out, “What inevitably sets Langlais apart…is the sophisticated way he treated his materials and the ingenuity of his engineering.”
In his final decade Langlais created some interesting non-wood works. “Big Cat-Night” (circa 1970) offers a close-up of that fierce animal, delineated in oil and graphite on wove paper. It is from the Portland Museum’s holdings, as is a lithograph, “Jungle Animals” (before 1975), a kind of version of Edward Hicks’s “Peaceable Kingdom.”
While still creating at the top of his game, Langlais died of congestive heart failure in 1977. He was only 56 years old. But he left a large and special legacy of idiosyncratic art around his home state and the nation.
Today, numerous monumental wood statues, surrounding the Langlais’s gray shingled farmhouse, are familiar sights to travelers passing by on River Road in Cushing. An enormous horse stands above the road and a pile up of football players animates the lawn in front of the house. Scattered around the landscape are what someone dubbed a “zoo in his garden” -scores of Langlais-created elephants, camels, alligators, sheep, giraffes, bears – and more.
The spectacular outdoor display includes an oversized Richard Nixon flashing a V for Victory sign as he sinks into some reeds, a gigantic depiction of Hall of Fame basketball player Julius Erving and the figure of Christina Olson, heroine of Andrew Wyeth’s famed “Christina’s World,” crawling on the ground. It is among the most interesting and entertaining outdoor sculpture collections in the nation.
Presiding over this unforgettable menagerie is Helen Langlais, the artist’s faithful widow, who sees to their upkeep and entertains aficionados and students of her husband’s work. She plays a central role in perpetuating his achievements, helping to secure his special niche in the history of American art. “[I]n our trouble-filled world,” she writes in the catalog preface, “perhaps the positive and independent energy of Bernard Langlais’s work will help to reach, uplift and maybe even bring a bit of hope and joy to those who see it. I sincerely hope so.”
Another impressive display of Langlais work can be found on the grounds of the beautifully sited Ogunquit Museum of American Art in southern Maine. Among the highlights: “Seated Bear” and “Lion.” The most visible work of all is the sculptor’s 65-foot statue of an Indian that towers over the Maine community of Skowhegan.
Major museums around the country and in Maine also own Langlais pieces. It is fitting that the Portland Museum, which has a number of Langlais pieces in its collection, should assemble this comprehensive and insightful exhibition of his sculpture oeuvre. With the help of a very useful catalog, this show helps elevate the memory of one of Maine’s most fascinating and gifted artists. Indeed, his spirit lives on in his work, appealing to all who see it.
The 87-page catalog, published by the Portland Museum, contains reproductions of Langlais’s work, informative chapters by art writer Shirley Jacks, Gallant and Little, and a chronology of the artist and his exhibition history. It will be the definitive work on Langlais for some time to come.
The Portland Museum of Art is at 7 Congress Square. For information, 207-775-6148.