September 16, 2019

A breath of Fresh Art Late artist George Daniell’s Grand Manan series exudes rugged tenderness

The breathing. That’s what I noticed first when I met George Daniell more than 10 years ago. He was in his 80s and his breathing was labored and thick when he moved. A tall heft of a man, he used a walker to clump from his kitchen, where he prepared nightly gourmet meals, through two central parlors to a studio in the back of his Trenton home, so worn by time the floor sank incrementally from room to room.

Earlier that day, we sat at the kitchen table and together looked through a large box filled with his black-and-white photographs. Daniell told me stories about Sophia Loren in Rome, Audrey Hepburn in New York, Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico, John Marin in New Jersey, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden and Roman Novarro. He had known my own hero of American art, Alfred Stieglitz.

But Daniell eagerly wanted me to see the paintings. Yes, he had made a career as a photographer, but he was torn as an artist because he had studied painting at Yale and always thought of himself as a painter as well as a writer. A stroke in the 1980s forced him to focus his desires. He gave up photography, and returned almost exclusively to painting and writing, his first loves. By the time I met him, watercolors were his sustenance. Even with a debilitated hand, he painted every day. It breathed life into him and, amid the pain, reminded him vitally of his own breathing.

That day in his studio would be the first of many I would spend sitting alongside the artist perusing works that were joyful depictions of beach parties and flowers, sorrowful expressions of loneliness, and the longings of an old man with a fierce memory of youth. We became friends and I listened with a sense of great privilege to his historical accounts of celebrities – literary, artistic, Hollywood and local.

Sometimes George would make dinner for me, and once we met at a Chinese restaurant. Whenever I traveled, I sent him postcards and invariably would arrive home to find a letter explaining the last time he had been to wherever I was. His stories were filled with adventure, indulgence and frustration that the good times of youth had ended. It was no small comfort that he still could hold a brush in his hand. When he died last September, George had earned the title “prolific painter.”

I am sure others in Maine have their own accounts of extraordinary encounters with George. He had many friends, many correspondences, and few of us ever crossed paths at his house.

I recall these memories now because George’s 1937 photographs of the herring fishery on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick are on display through May at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor. When I saw the 20 photos in the show, they reminded me of George’s breathing.

A year earlier than the Grand Manan shots, George arrived on Monhegan, fleeing the hot summers in New York City, where he grew up. He was looking for a place that

wouldn’t trigger his severe hay fever, a place where he could breathe.

As with many artists who come to Maine, the trip was fateful for George. He fell in love with the Northeast, with its fresh and breathable air, its landscapes and seascapes, its sculpted-by-work men and strong women. His photos from that era are documentary works about fishing, and they appeared in national newspapers along with his written accounts. But they also foreshadowed the themes that would hold his imagination long after the images of Sophia and Georgia and Audrey would fade for him.

George, it turns out, was a masterful photographer of men. Throughout his life, he struggled with his own sexuality, but his eye had no trouble finding its delight. George painted and photographed women, and they are lovely and regal and fun.

The men, however, exude a sensuality and grace that many artists only find in the curves of women’s bodies. George shot the boats and cliffs, but you can imagine how his heart melted when he saw the statuesque beauty of a Michelangelo embodied by a young, strapping fisherman smoking a cigarette in a doorway and smiling for the photographer.

The photos of Grand Manan fishermen – as well as swimmers in the Hudson River, bathers at a New York beach, and workers on the streets of Italy and Greece – exemplify that ruggedly tender quality that is all George. So does a self-portrait from that same era. It depicts George reclining in a dory near Monhegan. Except for photos of him with his mother and others with his lovers, this is the happiest you will ever see George. He must have found something deep and lasting in himself and in the environs in Maine. He is breathing and becoming.

In the end, George fought to stay alive after additional complications from a stroke. He was a willful 91. By the time I saw him in the hospital, he was in and out of consciousness. He could not talk but he did lift those crystal blue eyes of his to meet mine. It was a piercingly quiet moment. Then a restless sleep overtook him.

My colleague, the Portland Phoenix arts writer Jenna Russell, got it perfectly when she described one of George’s paintings in a show two years ago: “The fullness of his life could be symbolized by the figure in ‘Spring Fever,’ who lifts a basket of red fruit or flowers to the sky. The gesture is ceremony and celebration, a nod to life forces or mystic realms beyond the painter’s borders.”

So true.

My favorite of George’s photos has something of the same richness. It is of a fisherman leaning on a dock in Gloucester. The image is angular but not harsh or cold. It is smooth and soft and muscular all at the same time. It is George breathing beauty into every corner.

“George Daniell: The Grand Manan Series” will be shown 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, through May 10, at the University of Maine Museum of Art, Norumbega Hall, 40 Harlow St., Bangor. Works by painter William Gropper and printmaker Per Kirkeby also are on display through May 10. For information, call 561-3350.

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