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A painter who never settled on a style or a location

Dickinson works seem to belong to two centuries

PROVINCETOWN -- A gaunt, droopy-eyed old man and a beautiful young woman with long flowing hair sit at the center of "An Anniversary," one of the big, complicated, symbolically fraught works that made Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) a famous American painter in the decades before World War II. She directs at the viewer a wide-eyed, sidelong gaze; he points upward with the index finger of one tired hand. On the floor at their feet is an array of ceramic ware and pieces of fruit painted with the realism of a Dutch old master. Behind them stands in profile a young man with a violin who gestures as though conducting an unseen orchestra. A crowd of seated figures fills in the murky space beyond -- customers in a purgatorial sad cafe of the soul.

What Dickinson meant by "An Anniversary" is anyone's guess. He refused to explain his pictures. Yet the tableau feels charged with allegorical meaning: themes of age, youth, beauty, artistic creativity, fantasy, and reality are all in play. If you'd like to figure it out for yourself, there's a fine opportunity to do so at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, where the painting is included in "Edwin Dickinson: The Provincetown Years, 1912-1937," a transporting selection of works produced by Dickinson during the years he lived in that extraordinarily fertile outpost of modern American culture at the far end of Cape Cod.

Born and raised in upstate New York, Dickinson went to Provincetown in 1912 to study with Charles Hawthorne, a then well-known painter who ran his own art school. Dickinson stayed on as a year-round Provincetown resident for the next 25 years, during which he made his mark in the national and international worlds of contemporary art. He exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1919 he was in a show of prominent young Americans at the Musée National de Luxembourg in Paris, and in 1928, his big symbolist picture "The Fossil Hunters" was included in the Carnegie International, the prestigious contemporary art invitational exhibition.

For all that, and despite a full-scale, traveling retrospective organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 2002, Dickinson is not remembered the way American modernists such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe are.

Unlike those artists generally counted in the first ranks of American painters in the pre-Abstract Expressionist era, Dickinson did not forge a single, formally pared-down modern style. Rather, he worked in two distinct modes. He produced the large narrative paintings like "An Anniversary" that sometimes took years to finish and that seem to belong as much to the 19th as to the 20th century. And, working quickly in single sessions, he made landscape and maritime paintings that have a fresh, airy, modern feeling.

His most ambitious works, complicated blends of realism, surrealism, and Cubism, defy speedy reading and easy recall. Making sense of them is like trying to sort out the accumulated junk in your great-grandmother's dimly lit attic.

Painted in lunar shades of blue-green and deep purple in a style reminiscent of Dickinson's hero El Greco, "The Fossil Hunters" depicts heavy drapery parted to reveal a man and a woman lying head to head in sleep or death in a stony ditch. A plaster death mask, a grinding wheel, and the glimpse of a ghostly woman in the lower part of the picture compound the mystery. Portrait of a marriage? Freudian excavation of buried memories? Hard to say, but the painting certainly casts a haunting, lugubrious spell.

Dickinson's propensity for a kind of Gothic melodrama is a part of his appeal. His flickering, shadowy pictures of episodes in Antarctic exploration could illustrate a book of adventure stories for young people. But he was more than just an illustrator. The psychological urgency in his narrative works is as much in how they are painted as in what they depict. In "Frances Foley" (1927), a portrait of the artist's wife reclining in a voluminous purple gown, the sensuousness of the generously and impulsively applied paint mirrors the sensual attraction of the woman whose image it embodies.

In one of the strangest and most magical of all Dickinson's paintings, "Girl on a Tennis Court" (1926), the shadows of tree branches cast on the young woman striding toward the viewer over the tilting, white-striped green surface of a tennis court creates a hallucinatory, erotically-charged entanglement of light, shadow, figure, and ground.

Dickinson's other mode, which he learned from his mentor Hawthorne, was the "premier coup," or "first strike," which means a picture completed in just one session. The muted landscapes and harbor scenes that Dickinson painted in single sittings with seemingly effortless finesse exude meditative calm and a Zen-like alertness to perceptual experience. A hazy, luminous view of beach and ocean divided by a central porch post ("Cottage Porch, Peaked Hill," 1932) is a marvel of atmospheric subtlety and near-abstract formal economy.

Dickinson drew like a dream. His penciled seascapes and pictures of Provincetown houses -- inside and out -- have a combination of precision and delicacy that calls to mind such 19th-century master draftsman as Degas and Whistler. Some, such as the distant view of Long Point Lighthouse in Provincetown drawn in 1933, look almost like faded photographs. As his exquisitely sensitive portraits and nudes drawn from life prove, he was also an expert at the human figure. By comparison, his big narrative paintings, though more richly imaginative, can seem overworked and heavy-handed.

The artist never pulled together the two sides of his creative nature -- the slow and the fast, the complex and the simple, the visionary and the perceptual. The split persisted throughout his post-Provincetown career, during which he divided his time between homes in Wellfleet and New York. Had he found a way to integrate the two sides, would we remember him today as one of the greats of 20th-century American art? Perhaps. But maybe it's just as well that he remain a semi-secret treasure. That way, each new generation of art lovers can wonder upon rediscovering him, "How come we never heard of this guy?"

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

'Related'

Edwin Dickinson: The Provincetown Years, 1912-1937

At: Provincetown Art Association and Museum through Sept. 23. 508-487-1750, paam.org

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