The monumental landscapes of Song Dynasty China have their origins in reality; the classic boat trip through the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River continually brings mental images of actual paintings to mind. So it is with Edwin Dickinson in Provincetown, 1912-1937 at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum through September 23rd, 2007.
It may well be the special situation of Provincetown, flanked as it is on three sides by water, that produces the peculiar molecular moisture that translates into tones of equal value in paint. There is nothing else quite like it.
Mary Ellen Abell, curator of the exhibition, has managed to assemble 92 works from the first 25 years of Dickinson’s career, fully one quarter of his output during that period and, despite the quirky hanging by a committee of artists, has has created a show filled with quiet beauty. This is the work of a cultured, gentle person.
Eighteen little-known (with reason) etchings, 29 drawings and 45 paintings represent the full range of Dickinson’s subject matter and demonstrate the consistency of his attack. The landscape paintings and drawings—sand, sea and sky—are obviously the best reason to see this work in the area where it was created. This subject was treated in one of two ways: either through a long and hard-won process, or as premier coup paintings executed in a few hours and not revised. While both kinds of painting display Dickinson’s individualistic sense of color—reedy greens, dirty yellows and pale blues—the premier coup works feel like a release from the extraordinary meticulousness of his drawings of the same period.
There is certain madness, one might call it freedom, to the imagery and space that Dickinson chose to paint when not in front of the motif, either the model or the landscape. This resulted in the eight great “machine” paintings that brought Dickinson fame in his early years but little financial reward. Three have been assembled here and anchor the rest of the work in the exhibition. They demonstrate the meticulous craft of recording that he was capable of, and which he applied regardless of subject, media or time of execution.
Fantasy paintings like “Northwest Passage, Amundsen and KcKenna” (1924) or “Two Brigantines in the Sea, Antarctica” (1926), both studies in gray and yet more gray, look much better here than in New York. Again, the local light has its way, streaming through the Provincetown Museum’s skylights.
The portraits, executed mostly in shades of gray and purple, seem to have been done in the hermetic light of wintertime, in which Dickinson’s sparing use of a variety of whites shine forth from the approaching gloom. In contrast, his paintings of nudes are limpid feasts of warm tones and colors.
These paintings drink deeply from the history of art, a tradition that Dickinson’s skills exploited as variably as he wished. He did not necessarily need to choose between concept and percept, but he did need to look deeply and train his hand to follow his eye. They are paintings that demand and reward close attention: as John Elderfield said about the 1998 Bonnard exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, I wish that I could put Velcro on the floor in front of each painting to keep the viewer in place until he “got it.”
— Michael Rubenstein
The writer first discovered Edwin Dickinson’s work in 1954 and has been collecting it since 1997.