Although the New Zealand watercolourist Owen Merton (1887-1931) arrived in Bermuda in 1921 to paint the landscape, it seems that his being here went largely unnoticed. This was despite the success of his striking Bermuda series which, upon his return to New York in 1923, was exhibited at Gallery Daniel, a gallery known for launching the careers of artists such as Man Ray and Aleksander Archipenko.
Merton’s being unnoticed back then is still largely true here today. Most Bermudians have never heard of him, yet arguably, he did his best work while on the island. This exhibition marks the first time that the artist’s paintings have ever been shown in Bermuda.
Many significant artists visited Bermuda in the first half of the 20th century, and Merton’s work should be viewed through the same lens as that of artists such as Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, both of whom had recently spent time on the island, and with whom Owen Merton had exhibited previously in New York.
Today, Merton is becoming better known, especially in his homeland, New Zealand, and in the American Catholic world, largely due to the fame of his writer son Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) who, in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, writes about his time in Bermuda as a child. In the book, he likens his father’s Bermuda paintings to those by Cézanne. Certainly, the island’s light and colour worked their magic on his imagination.
Owen Merton’s Bermuda pictures are remarkable for their compressed space and incandescent colour – all aspects of a Modernist aesthetic. Where his earlier paintings were carefully rendered, Merton’s Bermuda brushwork is free and fluid, often with areas of unpainted paper. They mark a confident affinity for capturing the landscape and a distinct point of departure which forever changed the way that he worked.
A Bermuda Interlude: Paintings by Owen Merton is on display in the Ondaatje Wing through to August 2024. Exhibition curated by Dr Charles Zuill. Exhibition made possible by the loan of artworks from the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY. Sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, with support from Mari Harpur and Robert Steinhoff.