hrough his creation Ishmael, Herman Melville declared in 1851 that the great white whale Moby-Dick was a creature of such complexity and unknowability that it would necessarily remain "unpainted to the last," despite the various representations of whales that proliferated in Melville's time as they do in ours.
Alumna Elizabeth Schultz (PhD '67) has devoted much of her professional career to examining the creative disregard in which modern American artists have held Melville's notion of his whale's unpaintability.
Schultz, a professor of art history at the University of Kansas, discussed several painterly treatments of Melville's novel in a lecture titled "Creating a Cultural Icon: The Case of Moby-Dick." Her lecture introduced the U-M Museum of Art exhibition "Unpainted to the Last": Moby-Dick and American Art, 1930-1990. Schultz is the curator of the exhibit, organized by the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.
Moby-Dick's unconventional structure and its relentlessly philosophical spirit alienated most of the novel's 19th-century readers. But early in this century, literary scholars identified Melville's whale as one of American culture's most resonant and richly ambiguous symbols. Ever since then, The Whale has fascinated American artists of every stripe.
Commercial representations of Moby-Dick abound. The whale, Schultz noted, has adorned potholders and bath curtains and lawn sprinklers, and has lent its name to restaurants, computer disks and maternity clothes. But she offered the art works presented in "Unpainted to the Last" as a serious counterpoint to easy commercial meanings.
The exhibit's diverse and experimental images challenge "the popular and commercial reductionist and melodramatic interpretations of both the novel and the whale," she said. Schultz pointed to six general modes in which artists have responded to the novel---narrative, abstract, political, feminist, contemporary and icon-questioning.
Narrative realists such as Boardman Robinson and Mark Milloff have reacted to the novel's epic narrative scope. Realists, Schultz said, tend to assign "a heroic stature to Melville's characters and a magnitude to both the novel and the whale, thereby reinforcing its iconization."
Robinson's Ahab, part of a group of illustrations for a 1943 book-club edition of Moby Dick, captures the novel's intensity, the elemental driveneness of its characters.
Contemporary experimentalists, on the other hand, have shared with Melville himself a strong tendency toward defiance of conventional aesthetic boundaries and forms. The abstract expressionists were drawn to the experimental quality of Moby-Dick, or The Whale, to its fascinating, murky interiority. Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella, both represented in "Unpainted to the Last," found in the novel's quality of unconscious rumination an analogue for their own pathbreaking explorations of chaotic inner worlds.
In his Insanity Series Gilbert Wilson executed a fascinating transition from realism to surrealism to abstraction as he depicted Ahab's descent into madness. His Ahab's face fragments along the line of a scar that frequently appears in Wilson's representations of the mariner.
Political painters and pop-art satirists have questioned Moby-Dick's value as a cultural icon.
Ecologically minded artists have taken the whale for a symbol of the natural world under attack by human conquest. Richard Ellis, a founding member of the Save the Whale movement, imagines
Moby-Dick not as the solitary force Melville brooded over, but as a wounded member of the community of whales.
Feminists have responded to the total absence of important female characters in the novel, questioning the heroism of its characters and likewise meditating on the novel's engagement with the natural world.
Schultz's seemingly specialized pursuit, then, has led her close to some of American art's deepest creative wellsprings. She ended her lecture with Ishmael's ecstatic peroration: "Nor when expandingly lifted by your subject, can you fail to trace out great whales in the starry heavens, and boats in pursuit of them." The sheer variety of artists who have traced out great whales in recent years suggests the continuing power of Melville's novel as a lens through which American artists have observed their own culture.
Other artists among the 80 exhibited include Rockwell Kent, Robert Motherwell, Robert Indiana and Jerry Beck. The exhibition runs through December 24 at the Museum of Art. Schultz's Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art, was published earlier this year by the University of Kansas Press.
Whether these painterly efforts have proved Melville wrong, however, is another matter---one subject to a whale of a debate.