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Get thee to 'Dogtown' before it closes

Posted by Joel Brown  October 4, 2012 01:44 PM

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You have ten days to get over to the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester and see Marsden Hartley: Soliloquy in Dogtown, an exhibition of the great American painter's depiction of one of the stranger places in Massachusetts. If you don't know about Dogtown, an abandoned settlement on high ground in the center of Cape Ann, start with Wikipedia and then move on to Elyssa East's book. East was captivated by Hartley's paintings and drawings, which he made during two separate stays in Gloucester in 1931 and '34. You will be too.

The Cape Ann owns some of the works and borrowed others for an exhibition in 1985, when community leaders were gearing up to save Dogtown after its problems were brought to the fore by a murder that is the centerpiece of East's book. Now more than 3,000 acres are protected as conservation land and offer a relatively safe place for hikers and bikers and birdwatchers, although the place still retains its unique spookiness. And the museum has mounted a slightly larger version of the exhibit, which ends Oct. 14. It only takes up one room, but it feels larger.

Cape_Ann_Museum_Hartley_Summer_Outward_Bound_Gloucester.jpg.670x500_q95Soliloquoy in Dogtown features a dozen drawings but it is the paintings that are striking. Hartley's flattened perspectives and blunted shapes somehow embody the skewed feeling of the place. The colors are similar from painting to painting, somehow both vivid and unsettling, greens and greys and browns dominating under a blue sky with white clouds. The exception is the brilliant canvas simply titled "Dogtown," alive with autumn red and gold. This is one of those paintings that you'll want to absorb for a while.

The exhibit also includes a portrait of Hartley by Helen Stein and a variety of Dogtown memorabilia that should further whet your appetite for the real thing. Dogtown was largely open in Hartley's day, but is no less individual now for the scrub woods that have grown up. It's less than ten minutes from the museum by car, and there are maps at the trail head. But it's still easy to get lost there.

Image: Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). Summer Outward Bound, Gloucester, 1931. Oil on board. Gift of the estate of Robert L. French, 2009.

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Joel Brown is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and writes the blog. Catch his tweets between posts at More »

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