- Moby-Dick Illustrated by Gilbert Wilson: A Celebration of Melville’s 200th Birthday by Herman Melville, and: Unfinished and Unbroken: The Life of Artist Gilbert Wilson by Edward K. Spann
Moby-Dick Illustrated by Gilbert Wilson: A Celebration of Melville’s 200th Birthday
Ed. Robert K. Elder. Los Angeles: Hat & Beard Press, 2019. 421 pp.
Unfinished and Unbroken: The Life of Artist Gilbert Wilson
Ed. Robert K. Elder. Los Angeles: Hat & Beard Press, 2019. 315 pp.
Gilbert Wilson (1907–1991) devoted much of his creative life to Moby-Dick and had little to show for it but a barnful of art when he died. A native of Terre Haute, Indiana, he had lived most of his early life in that city before moving to New York City in the early 1940s, where he pursued his dreams as a muralist, writer, librettist, painter, film artist, social idealist, and openly gay man until the early 1960s, when he moved to his sister Margaret’s farm near Frankfort, Kentucky, where he died at age 83. A quick glance at his literary, artistic, and cultural associations would suggest he was a twentieth-century Zelig, living on the margins of important developments in a variety of fields without leaving a lasting mark on any.
The two new books under review here recover the range and significance of Wilson’s artwork and life for audiences that had previously only had access to him through Elizabeth Schultz’s resurrection of his artistry in Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art (1995). Schultz’s pioneering compendium of twentieth-century Moby-Dick art was a complete revelation. Rockwell Kent and Barry Moser were only two of eighty-two artists whose illustrated editions she discussed and documented. Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella were but two of fifty-seven artists whose free-standing artworks she discussed and illustrated. Among all these artists, Schultz’s presentation of the psychological range and pictorial force of the hundreds of works she had discovered in Wilson’s Kentucky barn was perhaps the greatest revelation. Her [End Page 109] book devoted 24 pages of text, 19 black-and-white figures, and 13 color plates to Wilson’s Moby-Dick art.
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I first felt the power of Wilson’s artistry when teaching Schultz’s book only a few months after its publication in my first-ever course in “Moby-Dick and the Arts” in the Spring of 1996. The class turned to Unpainted to the Last in February after having studied Moby-Dick itself in January. After two weeks in which students presented on the book’s artists, we took the bus usually reserved for athletic teams to Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art to see the exhibition Unpainted to the Last during the last weekend of the show. At first, students moved freely through the gallery in search of the one work that spoke most strongly to them. When we reconvened, each presented and explained his or her choice. None of us will forget how Bill Fletcher, a first-year freshman, took us through the six images of Wilson’s Insanity Series depicting Ahab’s excruciating transformation from a hearty sea captain rendered in a rep-resentational style, to a fractured personality in an increasingly abstract style, to a dark absence lost in a broken cosmos (Fig. 1). My first direct encounter with Wilson’s art was over the shoulder of one of Bill’s classmates.
During the week after our visit to the gallery, each student presented an analytic essay relating her or his favorite artwork to the novel itself. Before the semester was over, Bill and two of his classmates drove 300 miles from [End Page 110] northern Kentucky to Terre Haute, Indiana, where the Swope Art Museum houses more than 300 artworks Schultz had discovered in the Frankfort barn. Instead of writing research papers, the entire class of undergraduates asked if they could present an exhibition...