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Ship Masts and Telephone Poles: Sándor Bernáth’s Gloucester, Mass.

Today’s post comes from Natasha Mandell, class of 2016 and Art Center Student Docent.

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s Spring 2013 exhibition, Recent Acquisitions: Works on Paper, showcased some of the new additions to the Art Center’s collections. The exhibition covered a wide variety of time periods, movements, and media, including sixteenth- to twenty-first-century prints alongside numerous photographs, drawings, and watercolors.

Sándor Bernáth (Hungarian, 1892-1985)Gloucester, Mass., 1935Watercolor and graphite on cream wove paperGift of Thomas B. Roddenbery, class of 1980, in memory of Thaddeus and Isabelle Roddenbery, 2010.9
Sándor Bernáth (Hungarian, 1892-1985)
Gloucester, Mass., 1935
Watercolor and graphite on cream wove paper
Gift of Thomas B. Roddenbery, class of 1980, in memory of Thaddeus and Isabelle Roddenbery, 2010.9

One particular watercolor that was featured in the exhibition, Sándor Bernáth’s Gloucester, Mass. (1935), portrays coastal New England in the middle of the Great Depression. At first glance, the painting seems purely representational: a lonely house sits between the docks and train tracks, ship masts and telephone poles peek over the roof. Gloom pervades the scene, emphasized by such details as an empty room seen through a forward-facing window. But on closer examination, we can observe how Bernáth has departed from strict realism by making everything in the scene carefully and almost comically off-kilter, from the angle of the ship’s mast to the railroad tracks to even the lines of the house itself. Further, we can see how Bernáth makes use of the specific texture of the watercolor paper to portray the sky. A blue and purple wash over the stippled surface of the paper gives the sky a full, saturated appearance, bringing to mind the calm before a storm. The texture gives more depth to the painting, emphasizing the heavy feeling of the atmosphere. Yet despite the melancholy mood, the artist still conveys the simple peace of life in New England by the sea.

Doris Lee (American, 1905-1983)Winter in the Catskills, 1936Lithograph on cream wove paperPurchase, Milton Bellin Fund2011.26
Doris Lee (American, 1905-1983)
Winter in the Catskills, 1936
Lithograph on cream wove paper
Purchase, Milton Bellin Fund

During the exhibition, the watercolor was on a wall with several works from the same era, such as Doris Lee’s 1936 lithograph Winter in the Catskills, showing children playing near a bridge in a gently rolling countryside. Both Lee and Bernáth were known for their regional scenes, yet the Bernáth work in this case is far less idyllic; it isn’t quite classic Americana like Lee’s print. Bernáth emigrated from Hungary in his teens, and became well-known for his portrayal of New England, yet he undoubtedly had an outside perspective on the United States; to me, Gloucester, Mass. gives the impression of an outsider looking in, an observation of a lonely landscape. Contrasting his work with Lee’s, we can see two depictions of life during a tumultuous time: one that is idealistic, and one that seems to carry a touch of pessimism, yet both representing the American scene.

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