WILLIAMSTOWN — By all accounts, the Prendergast brothers — Maurice and Charles — were a dynamic duo of early 20th-century art.
Living and working in Boston for a majority of their lives, Maurice painted jaunty watercolor leisure scenes as part of the rising post-impressionist wave of American painters while Charles crafted highly sought-after frames for painters like John Singer Sargent. Maurice died at the age of 66 in 1924 and Charles in 1948 at the age 85. In 1983, Charles’ widow Eugenié secured their legacies by selecting Williams College Museum of Art to house the Prendergast archive. With the gift, including an endowment, the museum established the Prendergast Archive and Study Center which holds approximately 400 paintings, frames, decorative objects and other items from the brothers’ artistic lives; the largest of any Prendergast collection.
With such collections, it’s incumbent upon the museum to continually examine and reposition the artworks for future generations to interpret. This is what WCMA’s current exhibition “Rheingantz x Prendergast” aims to do.
Tucked in a pass-through room in the permanent collection wing, five of Maurice Prendergast’s small watercolors of Venice and Capri in the late 1800s/early 1900s are on display across from one large oil painting, “Vavale”, made in 2020 by Brazilian artist Marina Rheingantz. Rheingantz currently lives and works in São Paulo and was born in Araraquara in 1983 (the same year Eugenié began donating the Prendergast archives to WCMA). “Vavale” is also in the WCMA permanent collection and its adjacency to Prendergast infuses all the works with new meaning. All of the works prominently feature blue, Prendergast’s focusing on the canals of Venice and the island life of Capri. The scenes are lively with lights twinkling, flags waving, and many people moving about on foot or by boat. His loose, rhythmic, staccato brush strokes give the water a pleasingly realistic effect. All this movement and the bright color palette imply a party, upcoming or that just ended, and spirits are high.
With Rheingantz, the mood is much different. Hers is an expansive blue wash, thin and implying the movement of water that has broken its boundary and covered the land, leaving more of a marshland or swamp than a clearly defined island. Where Prendergast’s work is anchored in both time and place, Rheingantz is disorienting. The staccato brushwork found in Prendergast continues in the Rheingatz, connecting the two painters, but hers are out to sea. The short, quick marks and unmoored perspective help to bewilder by suggesting floating houses, birds aloft and seeking land, grassy patches peeking through soggy bogs.
It is admittedly difficult not to view art through the 24/7 international news cycle. But in our era of climate change, how else should art, particularly in or about the landscape, be understood? February brought torrential downpours to Rheingantz’s city of São Paulo, causing deadly flooding and landslides while Prendergast’s Venice experienced such drought that gondolas were banked, stuck and useless in waterless canals. Nothing suggests the party is over quite like a gondola on its side in the sand.
Despite what the news cycle might contribute to art, there is still pleasure in viewing landscape paintings. Here, both artists employ living blues and greens — seas and fields, forests and expanding skies. The key to all landscape painting is finding our place in it. Rheingantz is where to look now, with her mark making also suggesting a type of map: here are, or were, houses, trees, and a single off-center floating shape like a windowpane or a mirror. We can still look at the sun through its steady reflection off the water.
IF YOU GO
What: "Rheingantz X Prendergast"
Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday
Information: 413-597-2429, artmuseum.williams.edu