Robert Manning at Catamount
by Marguerite Serkin
For an artist or any interpreter of time, one’s personal past and the historical past provide a fount of material from which to create. Robert Manning’s early work grew out of his personal background — the life of an Irish American born in 1933 — and has pushed open the envelope to extend into the historical past. What better expression of that historical past than the ever-enduring stones and dolmens that have braved millennia of storms, empires and the curious, and have come to represent the relevance of our most ancient cultures to life today?
“I have always identified with being Irish. I am proud of it,” Manning said during a recent interview from his Danbury, Vermont home. “When I was a student at Pratt Institute, they showed ‘Man of Aran’ (Robert Flaherty). It took me 26 years to visit Ireland, and finally my wife and I went there, and I have immersed myself in the Neolithic world ever since.”
On view at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, “Bob Manning: A Retrospective” offers a chronological and comprehensive assemblage of Manning’s work. From portraits to Manning’s iconic images of stones, the exhibition encompasses the varied thematic elements representing the artist’s singular style.
The sensitive, expertly articulated lighting in the museum’s Hostetter Gallery brings out surprising, subtle but rich details in these esteemed, historical artworks that previously may have been missed by viewers. Observers will stand literally at arm’s length from these invaluable artworks, and all at once, realize these famous artists also stood at the exact same distance while working on these very canvases; it’s akin to traveling back in time to peer over their shoulders while they worked. What an privilege that is for this awestruck reviewer.
Manning’s early works feature an image of the artist as a boy, placed in the context of the times. “Franklin Avenue Warrior, 1943,” 2002, Prismacolor pencil, recreates a boy’s representation of wartime, with exploding munitions, diving planes, and now-antiquated tanks drawn in youthful outline, giving the piece the universal appeal of an easily identified, shared perspective of childhood. The yellowed background adds to the historical narrative of the work. “In 1941, I was lying on the rug in our living room making a drawing of Nazis, and the next week I included the rising sun. This is what a 10-yearold boy thinks about,” Manning said. “We collected scrap metal for the war effort,” he added. “We spent the money going to the movies.”