Thomas Cornell


Paintings - The Birth of Nature
Essay by Martica Sawin
Bowdoin College Museum of Art - Brunswick, Maine - 1990

For the catalogue of his last exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 1971, Thomas Cornell wrote: "Arcadia. I have a fantasy that I would like to realize, but it will take time and more work from direct experience. I would like to paint men and women enjoying themselves in nature, with wild and domestic animals and the fruits of nature, with peaceful, organized landscapes surrounding them." His words were in no sense a statement about the contents of that exhibition, which consisted entirely of the prints and drawings for which he was best known. Instead, he was publicly challenging himself, perhaps even promising, to work in an unfamiliar medium and scale and with a subject matter that involved problems very different from those he had previously tackled. Clearly Cornell saw himself at a turning point where what he wanted to say could no longer be contained in small-scale works in black and white. In order to realize his vision he was committing himself to work perceptually from nature and to take on the challenges of color, scale, and complexity associated with multiple figure compositions. Nineteen years later that fantasy has been realized, and on the walls of the same museum hangs a sequence of large and dazzling oil paintings on Arcadian themes, "men and women enjoying themselves in nature" exactly as the artist predicted, arrayed in radiant landscape settings and offering a potent blend of the mythological and the contemporary.

Unlike many artists who are involved with the art-making act to such an extent that medium and process become dominant over intentionality, Cornell puts the idea before the act. Art for him has from the start been a means of giving form to a specific socially significant theme. Important among the etchings that he did during the 1960s is the series accompanying the text of the defense of Gracchus Babeuf, the radical socialist brought to trial and guillotined following the French Revolution. About this time Cornell also illustrated and published the writings of Frederick Douglass, did portrait etchings of leaders in the civil rights movement, and began his involvement with the image of Dionysos, which took on, for him, a highly politicized meaning.

It was, however, concern over the war in Vietnam that in 1969 prompted him to undertake a large allegorical painting, The Dance of Death. Looked at alongside the paintings of twenty years later, it can only be described as clumsy, a friezelike arrangement of awkward nude males in military helmets, dancing in the bony embrace of skeletons. The work is important as an indication of Cornell's priorities, that is, the necessity of social content, and also because it shows how much he still had to learn about painting before he would be able to produce the accomplished works that comprise the present exhibition.

Cornell's approach to achieving his goals has been two-pronged, and for the late twentieth century highly radical. First he set about painting directly from nature, working outdoors in the rural landscape around Brunswick, along the Androscoggin, overlooking the tidal shore at Middle Bay, or even in the mini-Arcadia of his own backyard. Secondly, he renewed his study of the masters, especially Poussin, to whom he relates with increasing understanding and admiration. Since he took a course on Michelangelo as an undergraduate, Cornell has felt more of an affinity with the classical tradition than with the popular artist-heroes, such as Jackson Pollock, who were revered as models in those years. His self-assigned task, then, has been to mediate between direct experience and the synthetic artistic ideal. The resultant paintings have a bi-polar anchorage in these two antitheses so that they are animated by an on-going dialogue between the quotidian and the timeless, between T-shirts and jeans and classical nudity, between randomness and order, and between finished and unfinished.

It is in this series of dichotomies that the post-modernity, that is, up-to-the-minute contemporaneity, of Cornell's work manifests itself. For what is post-modernism but a consciously articulated exercising of options, the deployment of multiple sign systems, and a simultaneous acknowledgment of and refusal to abide by an absolutely resolved formal order? In a strange reversal of the artist's relationship to public expectations, Cornell's work is as radical today as Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe was in the Second Empire. In a single painting Manet managed to redefine the artist's relation to tradition, to issue a withering statement about social hypocrisy, and to assert blatantly that style was a part of content. Similarly, Cornell's Four Seasons, painted on commission for the John Hancock building in Boston, breaks a number of unspoken present-day taboos. The shock is not in the juxtaposition of the naked and the clothed that disturbed Manet's public, rather it is in the seriousness with which a harmony of human relationships is portrayed, the high-key color that radiates optimism and well-being, and, most of all, a genuine humanism that harks back to the Renaissance.

The Four Seasons - Thomas Cornell
The Four Seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. each 52 x 56 inches, 1986.

Although Poussin may provide the standard against which Cornell ultimately measures himself, it is impossible not to identify his work with the sensuousness of light and color and the luxuriance of figures at ease in nature of Venetian painting, especially Titian in his works on bacchanalian themes. It was in these paintings that Titian paid homage to Dionysos, much as Cornell has been impelled to do ever since he read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and The Bacchae of Euripides. In his Bacchanale (now in the Prado, Madrid), a painting that exudes uninhibited well-being, Titian celebrates wine, dancing, lovemaking, and children, depicting the drunken Ariadne as a sumptuous nude recumbent in the landscape, with his own signature strategically placed on a female breast. For Cornell, Dionysos becomes synonymous with nature and by extension a symbol of the environment, threatened by excessive emphasis on progress and rationality. Hence, he celebrates him not as an inciter to bacchanalian frenzy but as a benign host to a humanity capable of existing in a harmonious symbiotic relationship with the environment.

In The Bacchae, which he has illustrated in a number of etchings, Cornell sees Pentheus, the ruler who refuses to acknowledge Dionysos as a god and orders his destruction, as the lethal extreme of rationalism that brings down the full wrath and implacable vengeance of the spurned god. In his reading of the play, "There is no philosophical gambit that lets one off the hook, and this puts a limitation on human rationality. Nature must be observed. To deny it is to be destroyed." It has been with this message in mind that Cornell undertook the series of paintings on the birth, nurture, and youth of Dionysos. He was mindful also that it was Dionysos who freed Midas from the destructive fulfillment of his own wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. This introduces the related theme of the struggle between nature and an excessive and destructive materialism.

Dionysos - Thomas Cornell
Early Dionysian Scene, 48 x 60 inches, 1970.

In one of Thomas Cornell's early unfinished paintings of Dionysos, the god is shown seated against a central tree with Merrymeeting Bay in the background, in the view from what was at the time Cornell's Bowdoinham farm. This unresolved work provides another opportunity to trace the artist's thinking as he develops a theme; the landscape is very specific, and the god is an intrusive, confrontational presence. It must have been at this juncture that Cornell turned to Poussin to learn how to bring gods to earth, surrounding them with intermediary figures, structuring unobtrusive but entirely essential landscapes full of small wonders that complement but do not impinge on the central characters.

By 1979, when he painted The Youth of Dionysos (curiously enough, owned by the enlightened Rodale Press, where someone must have grasped Cornell's intent), he is able to paint a landscape that is both Arcadian and familiar, to place the figures in it in such a way that they help structure the space and to illuminate it with a clear strong light that produces a unifying system of cast shadows. With this basic method of structuring established, Cornell was able to go on to the large, ever more complex works of the 1980s, the continuing Dionysos series, Gaea, the Four Seasons, and most recently nine sizable canvases on the theme of bathers. Although the presiding god is no longer incarnate in these last, the message continues to be that of homage to nature, now expressed in joyful, nurturing, sensuous human interactions.

One of the writers who had the strongest influence on Cornell during his formative years was Herbert Marcuse, and it is not difficult to see the connection between the social diagnosis of Eros and Civilization and the liberated image of humanity set forth in the various versions of the Bathers. Marcuse stressed the need for a reconciliation between the pleasure principle, that is, sensuousness, play, and the life force, and the reality principle, which he equates with a repressive overemphasis on rationalism and productivity valued as an end in itself. The Bathers series offers an image of the play impulse unleashed in a guilt-free world in which social repression of the instinctual structure has been eliminated, the world envisioned by Baudelaire where there was only "ordre, beauté, luxe, calme et volupté." In Cornell's ideal world, men play with children and care tenderly for them, lovers embrace, a young woman helps an old one toward the water, children are unabashedly greedy, and no apparent social structures or strictures inhibit the impulsive human interactions. In some versions, such as Bathers VI, a seated pregnant woman in the center middle ground symbolizes the regenerative life force, conveying just the hint of an idol amidst the playfully active figures on the shore. A stable composition, balanced both across the picture plane and in illusory depth, and color harmonies organized around chords of primary red, yellow, and blue reinforce the projection of serenity and optimism.

And where is Arcadia? The infant Dionysos is delivered by Hermes to a New England farm, and he is nurtured by nymphs in Central Park; the background for The Four Seasons and the Bathers series is a wooded shorefront with mud flats and clamdiggers and a distant dying elm. (This is a gambit reminiscent of the early Renaissance, when biblical events were located in Italian or Flemish landscapes.) There may be over-muscled males and heavy putti out of Michelangelo, ghosts of archaic Greek kouros and kore sculptures, and layered art-historical and mythological allusions, but at the same time there is a specificity of time and place that signals the contemporary viewer that Eden is not wholly lost. Humanity may have taken eight of the ten steps toward self-destruction through irreparable environmental damage, but in Cornell's view the possibility remains that the hubris of rationalism can be atoned for by a change in human consciousness, and the artist's task is to provide the image of a model for change.

It is impossible not to compare his concept of the artist's role with that of another major contemporary painter of large figure compositions, Robert Birmelin, with whom Cornell shared a studio for a year. Birmelin paints the denizens of Manhattan's 14th Street, where his studio is located, or, more correctly, he paints the speeded-up urban tempo by means of fragmentary images, shifting perspectives, and garish, discomforting color. Both artists share a respect for draftsmanship but diverge on almost every other count, Birmelin focusing on process, on the instantaneous, and on the dehumanized figure as a product of a technologically created environment, Cornell on suspended time, completeness, the symbiosis of figure and natural environment, and the virtual exclusion of technology. Taken together, the two form a modern parable on the inherent contradictions that constitute the human predicament.

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse devotes a chapter to "The Aesthetic Dimension," in which, following Kant, he posits that the aesthetic dimension occupies a central position between sensuousness and morality and therefore contains principles valid for both realms. His reiteration of Schiller's view that the liberating force of the aesthetic function contains the possibility of a new reality principle appears to define Cornell's concept of the artist's role as the creator of images that offer a new reality. This is not the place to argue the case for life copying art, other than to say that the arts have played a major role in the continuous redefining of what it is to be human. Cornell, who is a savage critic of overly rigid systems of belief and overly rationalized thought, exhorts us to cure our ills through a reverence for nature, a trust in the instinctual, the enjoyment of the senses, a nurturing of all forms of life (even the snake discovered in Arcadia), and an understanding of meaningful work versus the work ethic (hence his heroic clamdigger).

It is a fascinating tour de force that he has accomplished. Using the most conservative artistic vocabulary possible and the most traditional of themes and images, he has made a radical statement about the possibility of social transformation. At the same time, he has kept the proposition open-ended through contradictions, through contrasts between finished and sketchy areas that articulate the devices of illusionism, through draining the color to a dreamlike grisaille, and through problematic artistic quotations. "I have a horror of being authoritarian or prescriptive," he says. "Paintings should include contradiction and dissonance."

It would be tempting to explain Cornell, artist in residence on the serene Bowdoin campus for a quarter-century, as an ivory tower painter, but the idea simply does not hold up. For a time he worked in New York for part of every year; he keeps a loft in Brooklyn and is thoroughly conversant with issues in contemporary art and theory. Yet the issues he deals with are in many ways less parochial than those being broached in the art world's storm center. A certain distance and detachment have given him the opportunity for reflection and the development of a philosophical content that is no less urgent for the classical vocabulary and pastoral vision. The syntax is wholly contemporary, while the image is a tantalizing parable for our time.

Martica Sawin