A Singular Vision: Gilbert Wilson and Moby Dick 

    July 27, 2007
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    WEST BEND, July 27, 2007 --- For Immediate Release --- Dive into the perfect whale-of-a-story in West Bend at the Museum of Wisconsin Art! Absorb an entirely new take on Moby Dick by viewing the museum’s newest exhibition that also includes a rare, first edition copy of the novel, called The Whale, as it was known in 1851 when released. This rare edition copy of Moby Dick has a blue cloth binding and is on loan to MWA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries who first purchased it for $0.25 in 1905 and whose value now is $60,000! Many copies of the first edition were burned in a fire and remaining copies were rebound in a different color. When the book was published, reviews were mixed with most being rather unfavorable.

    Pip with Tambourine and Aha

    Most Americans are aware of Herman Melville’s 1851 magnum opus Moby Dick and its ill-fated rivalry between eponymous whale and Captain Ahab. Few, however, are familiar with a little-known artist from Terre Haute, IN, who became as obsessed with the novel as the Ahab was with his great aquatic nemesis. Gilbert Wilson, (Terre Haute, Indiana 1907 - Frankfort, Kentucky 1991) regarded Melville’s book as his Bible, seeing it as a guide for humanity to better itself and live in racial harmony, full of salient lessons regarding politics, dictatorships, democracy, the environment, human nature and the use of both natural and human power.
    Beginning in the late 1940s, Gilbert Wilson read Moby Dick and resolved to use it as a vehicle to project his beliefs and lessons for mankind. A complex man, he was drawn to the book with its diverse assortment of characters, projecting upon them roles and behaviors found throughout society. Early plans envisioned an opera, with, Wilson hoped, the involvement of the Metropolitan Opera, Dmitri Shoshtakovich and Laurenz Melchior. Despite support from such diverse figures as Pearl S. Buck and Eleanor Roosevelt his endeavors were constantly thwarted as were hopes to be involved with John Huston’s film version of the novel starring Gregory Peck. Finally, a short film using Moby Dick/Museum of Wisconsin Art Wilson’s images was made, winning a Silver Reel award at the 1955 Venice Film Festival. These setbacks did not deter the passionate Wilson who eventually took his Moby Dick drawings and paintings on the road across America, traveling to 55 cities in 27 states during 1956.

    Besides Wilson, many artists have been inspired by Moby Dick: Rockwell Kent, Mark DiSuvero, Frank Stella, Richard Serra and Leonard Baskin to name a few. Rarely however, has anyone pursed the themes and characters with such intensity as Wilson whose work was prominently featured in Unpainted to the Last: Moby Dick and Twentieth Century American Art by Elizabeth Schultz (University Press of Kansas, 1995) an in-depth examination of how different artists have interpreted this literary leviathan.

    Heavily criticized upon publication, Moby Dick remained marginally popular until the early decades of the 20th century when D.H. Lawrence and F. O. Matthiessen championed its scope and thematic qualities as a perennially significant work of literature. Subjects raised by Melville were still relevant one hundred years later when Wilson became entranced by the novel and, indeed, are still pertinent today: misrepresentation, deceit, prejudice, tolerance, greed, hierarchical structures, bullying, intimidation and trust. Issues such as collaboration for the common good amongst the whalers can be said to be representative of democracy. When Ahab dictatorially usurps the mission of the ship to achieve his selfish goals, the Pequod is doomed. Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of personal goals versus the common good are still germane issues today as are racial issues being ignored in favor of common cause. In essence, whaling’s grand purpose was “to light the world’s lamps” through the use of oil from sperm whales. It was a dangerous business killing whales and harnessing nature’s latent power for man’s benefit. This has always been true whether the power source is whale oil, coal, or nuclear power – an issue very much to the fore in the 1940s and 50s and one close to Wilson’s heart. The positives of power sources come with downsides: danger of extraction, pollution and what to do with the waste product. Nature, if misused, will exact its revenge in one way, shape or form. Moby Dick, representing nature, destroyed the Pequod, and analogies can be made to global warming and what nature will do to the humans who have misused the earth’s environment. Without a doubt, Wilson, who died of Parkinson’s Disease in 1991, would have been outspoken on the issue of global warming.

    This exhibition marks the first time Gilbert Wilson’s Moby Dick drawings and paintings have been exhibited in Wisconsin. Borrowed from the collection of the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, it will include the magnificent and acclaimed six panel Insanity Series and the Moby Dick Triptych. Also included will be portraits of the crew including several of Ahab. Don’t miss this opportunity to reacquaint yourself with one of America’s greatest novels and a much underappreciated, near-genius artist, whose Moby Dick work, together with his 1935 murals in Terre Haute’s Woodrow Wilson Middle School, reveals an artist exceptionally sensitive to perennially important issues.

    Wilson’s award-winning 1955 film of Moby Dick will be shown at the MWA’s Sneak Peek Friday program on Friday, July 20th at 10:30a.m. as part of a gallery talk by Assistant Director and exhibition curator Graeme Reid, who will explore Wilson’s life, artistic career and motivations that obsessed this Midwesterner with one of the greatest American novels. Admission is free for members.