The arc of Bernard Langlais at Colby's Museum of Art
'SELF PORTRAIT' oil on canvas, 1955
At the time of his death in 1977, it was unknown the true number of art works left behind by Maine native Bernard Langlais. Best known in his home state by his sixty-plus foot wooden Abenaki chief that reigns over Skowhegan, the true breadth of “Blackie” Langlais’s oeuvre would not be known until the passing of his wife, Helen, in 2010. Helen Friend Langlais devoted her life to the stewardship of her husband’s art estate, a weighty task which then came under the meticulous reconnaissance efforts of estate curator Hannah Blunt. Hundreds of previously unexhibited sculptures, wood reliefs, and works on paper were uncovered, expanding Langlais’s catalog exponentially and rewriting his historic legacy. The effect of years of Maine weather having taken their toll on the wood and paint, the colossal conservation project became endowed to a collaborative effort of the Kohler Foundation, the Georges River Land Trust of Rockland, and the Colby College Museum of Art. This led to the creation of the Langlais Art Trail, a program that distributes works to non-profits institutions around Maine and beyond. Colby held nearly 200 pieces, and, along with private collection pieces, has created the artist’s first retrospective exhibition currently on view.
Raised in the lumber community of Old Town, the son of a carpenter, Langlais grew up surrounded by the course material of wood that would later become his signature medium, though his early training as a painter would be the foundation for his understanding of compositional weight and balance. After serving as a painter for the Navy during World War II, he studied art at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. His talent and academic prowess gained him scholarships to both the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he studied under German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann. He then accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to Oslo to study the work of Edvard Munch. Upon return to the States, Langlais and Helen, newly married, located to New York City. They also purchased a summer cottage in sleepy Cushing, Maine. The dichotomy of these diametric places would offer Langlais both national recognition and fertile inspiration, in distinctly respective order.
While doing maintenance to his Cushing house, Langlais discovered joy in the handling and assembling of the wood planks of the walls, the physicality of nailing grain to grain. He realized that the distance created by the paintbrush from his hand to his art had grown too great; painting alone had become too intellectual. He began applying tight constructions of foraged wood-grain textures and ready-mades directly to his canvases. In the high ceilings of his New York loft, he puzzled together lumber scraps from Maine and elsewhere, carving out beautifully rich reliefs and collages, like the humorous piece “To the Room of an Old Maid,” a nearly door-sized panel of darkly stained wood, scratched into with the initials and symbols of an old high school desk or dive bar bench.