Like Prometheus, painter Arthur Polonsky stole fire from the gods to give mortals through his canvases. Like a child trying to bottle all the fireflies lighting up the night, he's chosen an Olympian task that never ends. Now his work is lighting up the Danforth Museum of Art.
Like Prometheus, painter Arthur Polonsky stole fire from the gods to give mortals through his canvases. Like a child trying to bottle all the fireflies lighting up the night, he's chosen an Olympian task that never ends.
Viewers can now bask in the visual heat of Polonsky's striking works in a sumptuous exhibit at the Danforth Museum of Art.
Featuring 36 drawings, prints and paintings, "Arthur Polonsky: A Thief of Light" showcases art that pulses with the electric energy of poetry and music.
Danforth Executive Director Katherine French described Polonsky as "one of the most important painters of the school of Boston Expressionism."
Along with Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine and Karl Zerbe, the Newton resident painted broadly representational subjects and scenes which were distorted beyond conventional realism for a charged emotional impact.
In his signature images, Polonsky fuses the real and imagined worlds he jointly inhabits in a dreamscape of lovely colors and haunting images.
Located in the Rosenberg Gallery and an adjacent hall, it runs through May 18.
Noting the show includes works spanning 55 years, from 1947 to 2002, French called the exhibit "a survey of a man's career."
In a thoughtful essay for the catalog accompanying the exhibit, French described Polonsky as "a storyteller, in love with words and the ability of language to paint a picture."
Stephen King and James Patterson are storytellers. Polonsky is a seer.
As if overheating tubes of colored pigment, he paints brooding self-portraits in which he resembles a constipated Franz Kafka and mythic figures, hallucinatory landscapes and powerful abstracts.
And as an artist who appropriates the imagery of Greek folklore, psychoanalysis and Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Polonsky is also a visual myth-spinner whose paintings enflame viewers' imaginations in unexpected ways.
French said several works in the show suggest familiar high cultural motifs like Icarus and Daedalus, the theft of fire and the thrill of taking flight.
Forgoing everyday logic, Polonsky's paintings, she said, reflect his interest in "the irrational, metaphysics and the unconscious mind."
In "Memory" from 1955, a lithe naked man bends over with his head connected like a Siamese twin to the skull of an older man who seems to be rising from the coiled body of a snake. Wearing a blue medieval cloak, a calm yet enigmatic woman in Polonsky's 1959 oil "The Survivors" seems to have a second mask-like face growing from her halo of wild orange hair. In the haunting 1963 "Within the Dream," a man, vaguely outlined in red, perches precariously on a cliff's edge, suspended between sky and earth.
What do they mean? Don't ask. French said Polonsky wouldn't want visitors to seek exact parallels to explain a work but rather intuit its own mysterious logic on their own terms.
Despite his philosophic and literary influences, Polonsky's art is as grounded in prosaic reality as Norman Rockwell's. Yet he is not afraid to surrender to flights of imaginative fancy.
His workaday images, from "Self Portrait, 1947" to "The Surveyor" from 1966, let viewers appreciate the fundamental technical craft underlying all his work.
Reflecting Polonsky's lifelong interests, the exhibit carries visitors through the crucial creative movements of the 20th century, from surrealism to Expressionism, from art as a key to unlock the subconscious to Polonsky's signature style that infuses the commonplace with a magical sheen.
Born in Lynn in 1925, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Polonsky pursued a lifelong passion for art as a conduit to humanity's shared dreams. A skilled draftsman drawn to French symbolist poets and C.J. Jung's notion of the collective unconscious, he painted like a shaman conjuring up images and landscapes that suggest the witch's brew bubbling beneath the everyday surface of things.
As a child, Polonsky watched, fascinated when his tailor father drew suit patterns with chalk on black paper, marking the two-dimensional outline of a design that "would later become the contour of a living person." He studied drawing while in high school at the Museum of Fine Arts and later traveled to Paris where he immersed himself in the craft of the European Masters from Rembrandt to Picasso and Chaim Soutine, who was so obsessed with capturing form he kept an animal carcass in his studio.
Throughout the arc of a long career, the now 82-year-old Polonsky painted, exhibited and taught, always evolving, always fusing technique and vision in a never-ending quest to capture the dance of light.
Viewing Polonsky's paintings is like stepping from shadows into sunshine.
In paintings like "Sleeping Aaron" and "A Stream Mystery," he infuses everyday scenes with an intoxicating incandescence that awakens us to other realms summoned forth by his dazzling colors.
Barbara Swam, a Museum School classmate, once described Polonsky as an artist possessed of - perhaps, possessed by - "a mystical, mysterious inner life that was unique."
She might have been describing this exhibit.
The Danforth Museum of Art is at 123 Union Ave., Framingham.
Hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Museum admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students and free for children under 12 and Danforth members. The museum is wheelchair accessible.
For more information call the museum at 508-620-0050 or visit the Web site www.danforthmuseum.org.