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Painting a New World

Tom Cornell in studio
Tom Cornell in his studio

Story posted March 02, 2004

Thomas Cornell is as much philosopher as artist. His paintings are bound to his views on nature, life and spirituality, and he tries through them to express a new vision of the good.

The Richard E. Steele Professor of Studio Art came to Bowdoin in 1962 to teach art, but he began his undergraduate career with very different intentions. He went to Amherst at the time of Sputnik with the intention of becoming a physicist.

"That's what the country wanted me to do...If you could think, they wanted you to be a physicist," he said, "I got seduced along the way into art."

The jump from physics to art isn't as strange as it may seem, according to Cornell. Some of the best art students he's encountered are people whose parents wanted them to go to med school. They had scientific minds and could visualize in three dimensions. When he started in art, Cornell hadn't done much drawing, but because of his interest in science, he was accustomed to thinking spatially.

His first published work in 1959 was an outgrowth of his interests in science, art and nature. It consisted of a series of anatomically inspired drawings for a book on Darwinism called The Monkey.

Cornell was soon drawn to the Civil Rights movement. He and two students edited and published a book of Frederick Douglass's writings, and he also published an article about the philosophy of activist Bayard Rustin.

Frederick Douglass, etching, 1965, 19x15"

He has published other books, and his interests have never been limited to only the visual arts. His art is concerned with goodness, the priority of nature, and social well-being with nature. He even established his own press, Tragos Press, in the 1960s.

In response to the Vietname War and challenged by a student, Cornell created a huge painting called Dance of Death, a 23-foot-wide triptych that dealt with themes of Vietnam.

All the while he was reading and thinking and developing his own philosophy. His mentors at Bowdoin were Edward Pols and William Geoghegan, professors of philosophy and religion. After Dance of Death he set off in a new direction.

Dance of Death
Dance of Death , oil on canvas, 1968-69, right panel of triptych is 90x66"

"That was a critique of the bad...the rest of my career is to be involved in the creation of the good," he said. "My to help construct a new world, not catharsis about the old world."

Now in his large canvases, Cornell uses nature and allusions to classical art and mythology to portray his vision for an ideal world.

He disagrees with religions and philosophies that have separated humans from the natural world and usually held humans above nature. To him, people and the rest of the natural world are just parts of the same whole.

"The kind of tradition I'm involved in is the tradition of replacing the old orthodox views of religion...with the idea that we are interdependent with nature."

He doesn't think it's enough to criticize, however. He referenced a book by Bill McKibben The End of Nature, which was a call to arms. Cornell is coming at these problems from a positive perspective.

"We have to construct a vision," he said.

Unlike many post modernists, Cornell is drawn to the idea of a metanarrative, and for him that metanarrative is a new vision of "the good" - humanity in harmony with nature.

Summer and Autumn (center paintings from Four Ages), oil on canvas, 1985-86, each painting is 52x56", collection of The Portland Museum of Art, Maine

About 20 years ago, while working out how to express his notion of the good, he did a painting of people out in nature, a father, son and a pregnant woman.

"And they started to be the players in this new vision," he said.

They have been central figures in much of his work ever since. Community and communion with nature are central themes in his work, and this includes care and nurture of children — hence the pregnant woman — but doesn't hold with the "old orthodoxy." He includes men in nurturing roles as a response to the isolating classical ideal of manhood.

"There are practically no paintings of men taking care of children in western art," he said. "So making the father with the child I see as a new image in a way. A new image of the good."

Bathers V, oil on canvas, 1988-2003, 48x66"

While a pregnant woman is central to many of the paintings, it's important to Cornell that an older woman is included as well, and that men are shown caring for children. He wants the environment in the painting to be at once believable, but also a vision of something new that we should try to attain.

"I'm making a case for a kind of metaphysical statement...a new kind of moral truth," he said.

In some of his newer paintings, the central figure is a black man holding a white child. Though it has similarities, it is a break with the typical image of the male in Western art, and it's important that the man is caring for a child of a different race and all of the figures are surrounded by the natural world.

"There's a kind of rhetoric of communication of love and interest," he said.

Bathers X, oil on canvas, 1991-2004, 72x84"

The kinds of paintings that Cornell chooses to paint, however, create a challenge. As a figurative artist, he is aware that there is always a danger of leaving someone out, so he's conscious of including people of many ages and races. While the figures are in the environment, the time portrayed is nonspecific and includes allusions to art history as well as modern time.

Many of the figures in the paintings are nude. By featuring them, he's trying to convey a sense of innocence and spirituality. He referenced a painting by Titian that portrays sacred and profane love: Sacred love is shown as pure and nude, and profane love is masked by frills and finery.

"Beauty implies a kind of harmony with nature," he said. "So I think a beautiful body can be part of the idea of what is beautiful and good."

One of the positive attributes of beauty is that it "can seduce people into new ideas."

But Cornell recognizes that for some people, nudity makes a painting harder to accept.

"One of the things I totally believe: there should be no taboo against any kind of awareness," he said. "The other side of this is it raises questions, which good art can do.”

Bathers X, detail

Many of Cornell's paintings are variations on the same themes and contain similar images. He paints four to five hours a day and he has numerous paintings underway at any one time. They start as drawings, and then he works on small canvases until his idea is more fully formed, at which point he moves to a large canvas. He is constantly adjusting and changing the paintings and he's worked on some of them for 10 to 15 years. Deciding when one of them is complete is always a challenge.

"You want to be decisive, but you want to recognize that it's open," he said. "There's a kind of arrogance in forcing a closure."

In creating a painting, he feels it's important to recognize one's own limitations, to let the viewer participate in the painting and to let thinking be the subject. In other words, while creating provocative and beautiful images, the specific image isn't as important as the idea behind it.

"You don't want to get so programmatic that it's simple," he said. "It has to have the contradictions that life has."

He also said that he's not seeking perfection in his own work, but instead wants the paintings to be "empirically adequate."

"It doesn't have to be perfect...but it oughtn't to be alienating...I want it to feel sort of right."

Haprswell in July, oil on muslin on board, 2003, 24x30"

Part of doing it right is learning as much as he can about philosophy, so he's certain he's conveying what he wants in the paintings. He attends philosophical meetings and also reads a great deal of modern philosophy and does some writing in response.

He hopes his art has enough layers to it that the paintings can be appreciated on many levels. Showing figures in nature is a way of expressing his philosophy, but a figurative painting is also easier for some people to take than a more abstract work would be. Someone can enjoy the painting, without agreeing with his philosophy.

Brunswick and Bowdoin are wonderful environments in which to create, he said, because they are far enough removed from the art world in New York and other large cities to provide some perspective. Then again, going to see art in New York and then returning gives Cornell a new perspective on his own work.

He appreciates the idea of the ivory tower as a place where artists and scholars can be devoted to their work without distractions, but it's also important to him to stay connected to the life outside it. Partially for that reason, he prefers for his work to be displayed publicly and not only remain in private collections.

"I think these are really meant to be public, rather than private...and I like the notion of a public dialogue," he said. "It's only meaningful if it operates in society."

Bathers VIII, oil on canvas, 1989-2004, 58x76"

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