Saturday, February 27, 2016
Not everyone sees the artistic potential in the current construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge. But Bartholomew F. Bland does.
“We’re really interested in what’s happening there,” Mr. Bland, deputy director of the Hudson River Museum, said of the project to replace the existing bridge. “It would be an amazing thing for a painter to be documenting the transformation.”
Mr. Bland’s enthusiasm for scaffolding, hard hats, winches and pulleys can be explained by a visit to “Oh Panama! Jonas Lie Paints the Panama Canal,” an exhibition that began in February and runs through May 8 at the museum in Yonkers.
The exhibition, curated by Mr. Bland and Kirsten Jensen, chief curator of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., where the show will travel next, follows a burst of creative energy that gripped Mr. Lie (pronounced “Lee”), a New York landscape artist, in 1913. Giving Mr. Lie’s painting spree liftoff was a documentary on the near-completed Panama Canal.
“Lie went to a New York movie house and saw a very, very early color movie called ‘The Making of the Panama Canal’ toward the end of 1912. He was so intrigued by it he was convinced he had to get there,” Mr. Bland said on a recent tour. A 1913 book of hand-colored photographs illustrating images Mr. Lie might have seen in the film — massive machines entrenched in muck and mosquitoes thousands of miles from civilization, terracelike steps down to a 40-foot deep canal bed where men laid tracks and placed dynamite — is among a few dozen artifacts arranged in glass cases in the show. So is a postcard that was on sale to Panama City tourists that shows Hercules prying open the earth.
Mr. Lie, who was born in Norway in 1880 and died in New York in 1940, was not the only one who packed his bags and his paintbrushes and headed to Panama to witness what is still considered one of humankind’s most ambitious feats of engineering.
For those with a tenuous grip on the history, a primer: The construction of the 48-mile Panama Canal across the Isthmus of Panama linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. France began the project in 1881, but it was taken over by the United States in 1904 after tropical diseases including malaria flattened French work crews, killing more than 20,000 people and bankrupting the project.
The building of the canal was undertaken to allow ships to avoid the lengthy Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America, creating a shorter route to the West Coast of the United States and to countries in and around the Pacific Ocean; those ports and countries could then be better integrated into the world economy. The United States, propelled by the determination of President Theodore Roosevelt, took a decade to build the $639 million canal, employing a total of 56,000 workers for the job. It was officially opened in August 1914 (though it, like the Tappan Zee, is also busy with construction; the Panama Canal Expansion Project, which will open a third, wider lane of locks, is expected to be completed this year).
For Mr. Lie, the near-completed canal of 1913 presented an opportunity to build on a budding reputation as an artist of the moment.
“Between 1910 and 1915 was a peak time for him,” Mr. Bland said. Before then, Mr. Lie was painting traditional landscapes of countryside and harbors. “He had been to Paris in 1906 to see the Impressionists,” who may have influenced him; works in the show are muted though vibrant. “Those paintings were popular, but there was this sense of excitement around a transforming metropolis that Lie was starting to feel.”
At the start of the new decade, Mr. Lie had shifted his perspective to dramatic cityscapes and scenes of urban construction. The new focus placed him “at the vanguard of American art,” Mr. Bland said, noting, “He was by then very involved in the New York art scene.”
Mr. Lie made roughly 30 paintings during the three months he spent in Panama, but the artwork wasn’t unprecedented. A book of views by Joseph Pennell, “Building the Panama Canal,” had been published in 1913 after Mr. Pennell visited the site in 1912.
“At first Lie thought Pennell had covered the territory” with his book of black-and-white lithographs, Mr. Bland said. But he came to realize the book was more reportage than art, and convinced himself that the visual story of the Panama Canal had to be told in color.
“Oh Panama!” collects 14 of Mr. Lie’s man-versus-nature-themed Panama Canal paintings, including “The Conquerors,” on loan for this exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 60-inch-by-50-inch work is the centerpiece of the show, depicting part of a nine-mile stretch of mountains being blasted away by dynamite.
“It looks like hell, like an inferno,” Mr. Bland said of the painting. “There’s all this black smoke.” Blues, whites and earth tones surrounding the smoke and machines are vivid, though, demonstrating Mr. Lie’s painterly skill.
Eleven of the paintings, including “Heavenly Host,” in which buckets of concrete hover in the sky before being dropped to workers below, were lent by the West Point Museum at the United States Military Academy.
“They ended up there because of General Goethals’s involvement with the military,” Mr. Bland said, referring to George W. Goethals, eponym of a New York bridge, who was chief engineer of the canal, appointed by Roosevelt in 1907. “He knew Lie and admired his work.” In 1928, an anonymous donor bought the series and presented the paintings to the academy “in memory of the West Pointer who, as chief engineer, was most potent in channeling the isthmus,” a notice in Time magazine read.
Mr. Lie’s Panama Canal series has never been shown as a complete group. “They’re usually rotated in and out, one at a time, at West Point, because they’re not really set up for fine-art appreciation there,” Mr. Bland said. That makes the Yonkers show, which also includes three lithographs on paper borrowed from Vesterheim: The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa, especially important to an admittedly small group of potential visitors: Jonas Lie fans.
“This was a nice little moment in American art, but Lie is an undervalued artist within it. He was a major figure in his time,” Mr. Bland said. But not anymore. After World War I, his star faded. “He started to seem old hat, as almost every artist does after they speak to their moment,” Mr. Bland said. “I hope the show helps him have a critical renaissance.”