The Whimsical World of Bernard Langlais

Bernard Langlais:
Maine's Quirky Artistic Treasure

Are you heading to Maine any time this summer or fall? If so, keep a keen eye peeled for the art works of Bernard Langlais (1921-1977). They shouldn't be hard to spot. Thanks to efforts spearheaded by the Kohler Foundation and Colby College, hundreds of his works have been dispersed throughout the state, an initiative formally known as the Langlais Art Trail. Dozens of public libraries, civic spaces, parks, and art museums are sprinkled with his work and you'll know it immediately–its whimsy will bring a smile to your face and you'll embrace it without judgment of its artistic merit.

Cezanne phase
On that last point, one of the many intriguing things about Langlais is that he challenges preconceptions about art. Like most creative people, he went through the process of finding his niche. Check out an early Picasso and you'll find a man emulating naturalistic painters, and even his famed "blue" and "rose" periods are a mere patch on what he produced after he saw his first African mask. John Marin wanted to be an architect, then flirted with academic painting–until he went to Paris in 1905 and saw modern art.

Langlais similarly had to free himself from convention. He was born in Old Town, Maine, first trained as a commercial artist, but then went to art school, where he developed affection for Cezanne and Matisse. After World War II, he was back in Maine on a scholarship at the innovative Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, before heading off to New York, France, and Norway, the latter on a Fulbright stint that instilled a love of the paintings of Edvard Munch. His earliest works show him echoing many of his influences, a task he did well though hardly with great distinction. He
Inspired by Munch
enjoyed some success in New York, but grew bored with its art scene. (Contrary to legend, people can and do get bored with New York.)

In 1966, Langlais moved to Cushing, Maine, not far from where Andrew Wyeth summered. There he purchased a farm along the St. George River that needed some work, which rekindled his love of working with wood. He also discovered an unusual artistic inspiration: National Geographic Magazine. Wildlife photos held special fascination for him, and he began assembling fanciful 3-D images of animals in small and large-scale. Some are anatomically approximate, but most bear resemblance to folk art. That is to say, the highly trained "Blackie" Langlais–as he was known by locals–reinvented himself as if he were an untrained folk artist. For all of his schooling, Langlais is best known for a 62-foot carved Indian that stands in Skowhegan.

The ennui of sheepiness
For my money, Langlais' offbeat carvings—often fashioned from rough plywood—contribute far more to the art world than another Cezanne or Munch wannabe ever could. In academic discussions of the aesthetics of art, the word "fun" is too often missing. Langlais' carvings are chimerical, droll, and filled with wonder. In many cases, they capture the essence of the world of beasts far better than any realistic rendition could. (There is, after all, just so much a painter can capture in two dimensions.) Most of all, each work is handcrafted and unique–the perfect antidote for our age of mass-assembly cookie-cutter sameness. Seek Langlais' work next time you're in the Pine Tree State.

The photos in this piece were taken from an exhibition of his work from the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. Alas, that show closed at the end of June, though several of the sculptures continue to adorn the lawn. Those traveling to Cushing should definitely go to his studio, recently opened to the public. While you're there, go to Wyeth's house where it will take you all of about 30 seconds to understand his famed 1948 work Christina's World.

Rob Weir  

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