WCMA exhibit examines construction of Panama Canal

“I believed that at the Canal I should see the Wonder of Work, the Picturesqueness of Labor, realized on the grandest scale,” Joseph Pennell wrote in 1912.

His work, along with that of other North American artists such as Jonas Lie, is currently being exhibited in the Aaron Gallery at the Williams College Museum of Art in an effort to illustrate the historic importance of the Canal whose governance will pass to the Republic of Panama at the end of this year.

In approaching the Aaron gallery one can just glimpse, through the door, an intriguing splash of color. It is a canvas depicting flying objects, entitled Heavenly Hoist by Jonas Lie, which helps set a glorifying tone for the entire exhibition.

This particular work shows the ingenuous process by which concrete was transported, via huge cranes, to the appropriate construction site.

To call it a Heavenly Hoist romanticizes a practical process that was probably as dangerous as the painter found it beautiful.

Joseph Parnell summarizes this duality in the Panama Canal’s construction when the constant dynamite explosions lead him to state that the site “seemed like a siege, but all was peaceful.”

The Panama Canal, originally a French project that had been abandoned in 1889, was taken over by the United States after Panama declared its independence in 1903. A structure that the exhibition describes as a water bridge was planned, the idea being to minimize digging, and speed up construction. The design involved three succeeding locks leading to an artificial lake, from which more locks descended ships back to ocean level.

Theodore Roosevelt visited Panama in 1906 in order to lend the weight of the government of the United States to the Panama Canal building project. He spoke to workers and sat at the controls of a Bucyrus steam shovel.

This event is recorded in a photograph reproduced on one of the postcards available in the Aaron Gallery, where well-dressed men stand around exemplifying the image of the successful American entrepreneur.

The Panama Canal, through this period, began to symbolize a triumph of Americanization. The United States was beginning to take a leadership role in world affairs, and saw the Canal as exemplifying its increasingly powerful position in trade.

Therefore, it is no wonder that artists such as Pennell and Lie, both struggling artists at the time, should choose the subject of the Canal for artistic inspiration as the Canal wrapped itself into American identity.

WCMA tells us that these artworks were designed to add excitement, a “grand hoorah” to the perception of construction back in the United States. The collection of approximately 20 prints, paintings and photographs are worked from a similar high, distant perspective that helps to dwarf details in favor of a general impression of magnificent construction lines.

The ugliness of the construction site and the scarred earth of the Culebra excavation take second place to the pattern formed by cranes and scaffolding. Joseph Pennell compares the canal’s engineering work to that of a cathedral, complete with flying buttresses. Meant to inspire awe, the art of the Canal chosen by George Goethals, Professor of Psychology, and Marion Goethals, WCMA Associate Director, exhibits efforts by contemporary artists to make a living of this American patriotism on a huge scale.

In 1979, Panama and the United States negotiated treatises of transfer. The Canal again was a symbol of nationalism, but this time more for Panama than for the United States. “Transferring the Panama Canal: Passage to a New Millennium,” a symposium on the leadership associated with the 1979 diplomatic efforts will be held on October 21.

Article originally appeared in the 9/21/99 edition of the Record.

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