Saturday, October 31, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Autumntide of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga


Autumntide of the Middle Ages

By Johan Huizinga

Translated by Diane Webb, with an essay by Graeme Small
University of Leiden-University of Chicago Press/$69.50/691 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves 

As World War I raged across Belgium and northern France, a Dutch historian named Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) worked on a book about the culture of these battle-scarred regions. Huizinga chose a distant era, the late Middle Ages, on which to focus. 

What Huizinga wrote about Medieval Europe had a resonance for the events of 1914-1918. Now, in the troubled twenty-first century, the Dutch scholar's historical insights are equally timely. 

Huizinga's great work, Autumn (or Autumntide) of the Middle Ages, was published a century ago in 1919. The Dutch word for autumn, Herfsttij, was chosen by Huizinga to reflect the way that the civilization of Medieval Europe  had aged, atrophied and faded away. 

This process was anything but a calm, gradual process. Europe during the 1300's-1400's was wracked by wars, plagues and revolts. 

"So fierce and clamorous was life" during the late Middle Ages, Huizinga wrote in an immortal sentence, "that it could endure the mingled odor of blood and roses."

While these calamities wreaked havoc, poets, especially at the court of the Duchy of Burgundy, diverted the minds of the aristocratic ruling class with tales of Chivalry. Even more sensational were coy, erotic poems such as Romance of the Rose. Of course, this hugely popular poem was garbed with plenty of "look-but-don't touch" symbolism. But everyone understood the life and death truths of their troubled times - regardless of how these elaborate fictions tried to disguise reality.

The Garden of Love, from the Romance of the Rose, c. 1490-1500

To gain insight into the social milieu of his topic  of study, Huizinga read widely in the literature of the 1300's-1400's. He also closely studied the masterpieces of art produced during that period. 

It needs to be emphasized that Huizinga's "required reading" of his literary sources was an heroic endeavor. Almost all of the poets and secular writers in France, Burgundy and the Netherlands during the 1300's-1400's were definitely of the second-rank - none remotely matched Chaucer or Petrarch. Many of them, like Eustache Deschamps and George Chastelain, were scarcely remembered in Huizinga's time and are chiefly known today because he discussed them!

Autumntide of the Middle Ages is the definitive book on the late Medieval era. The Dutch university where Huizinga taught, the University of Leiden, has just published a new edition of this classic work, in collaboration with the University of Chicago Press. It is a huge, brilliant volume, brimming with high quality illustrations mentioned in the text and an insightful essay detailing Huizinga's career and the reception of his magnum opus all over the world.

Of special note, Autumntide has been newly translated into English by Diane Webb.  Huizinga wrote in an occasionally idiosyncratic style, very readable, but with numerous sentence fragments. Webb succeeds to a superb degree in adhering very closely to his text while making it intelligible to contemporary, English-speaking readers. This is also true for the great mass of medieval poetry which Huizinga quoted, newly translated in a parallel text with the original, mostly French, verse.

With her impressive knowledge of Dutch language structure and the nuances of Huizinga's style, Webb has achieved wonders: a compelling version of a classic book which has stood the test of time, as will her translation.

      Title page of Autumntide of the Middle Ages, by Johan Huizinga,         published by the University of Leiden, 2020

The central event of the historical era, so brilliantly analyzed by Huizinga, was the pandemic known as the Bubonic Plague or Black Death which ravaged Eurasia and North Africa. Between 1347-1353, this dread disease killed between one-third to one-half of Europe's population. 

The Black Death reappeared at periodic intervals thereafter, insuring that a state of terror remained simmering in the hearts and minds of everyone from low-born peasant to the noblest lord. 

Huizinga wrote in great detail on the way that images, both in literature and the visual arts, insured that people were reminded that death was ever lurking, ready to snatch them away from the delights of life and love. The ghoulish, almost gleeful, depiction of cadavers and skeletons in close proximity to living, vital people was so widespread that one has to assume that such imagery satisfied a macabre need, perhaps survivor's guilt, among those who had lived through the Black Death.

                              The Three Living and the Three Dead,                              from the Psalter of Bonne of Luxembourg

Ranking somewhat lower on the Richter-scale of disaster, but still horrific, were the bloody Hundred Years War between France and England, a decades-long witch-hunting mania across Europe and the increasingly shrill religious controversies which culminated in Martin Luther's revolt against the Papacy in 1517.

In Autumntide, Huizinga indirectly addressed political and military events. He cautioned against trying to understand the late Middle Ages in terms of great battles or details of demographics and GDP.

"Civilization has just as much to do with dreams of beauty and illusions of the noble life," Huizinga wrote, "as it does with population and taxation figures."

The medieval "dream of beauty" was an understandable, in some ways commendable, response to life's hardships. Yet, its "illusions" concealed hidden dangers if taken to extremes. And that is exactly what transpired. In another, celebrated passage, Huizinga wrote:

The later Middle Ages is one of those end periods in which the cultural life of the higher circles has become almost entirely a parlour game. Real life is violent, hard and cruel; one reduces it to the beautiful dream of the chivalric ideal and builds on this the game of life. It is acted out behind the mask of Lancelot: it is a colossal self-deception.

It was because reality was so terrible that these rarefied forms of poetry, art and courtly manners should have been appreciated as a "parlour game." Reading between the lines, Huizinga astutely surmised that many of the more level-headed knew the "score." They played the "game" and then got on with life. Such realists understood that a jousting tournament between armored knights was not "real" warfare.

Ivory Plaque with Tournement Scene, c. 1320-1340

Yet it was hard to keep a sense of balance because the emotional climate of late Medieval Europe was one of extremes. Hysterical reaction to adversity was contrasted with manic or outlandish celebrations. Almost unbearable sensitivity alternated with unrestrained cruelty. 

The Europe-wide embrace of these "dreams of beauty and illusions of the noble life" was centered upon the Duchy of Burgundy. Located to the east of Paris on some of the most fertile lands of Western Europe, Burgundy was the heartland of Europe, both figuratively and politically. 

With the central control of the French monarchy weakened by war with England, the dukes of Burgundy sensed an opportunity to create a powerful realm of their own. Possessed of great wealth produced by the cities of Flanders under their control, the lords of Burgundy nearly succeeded.

Huizinga presumed that the readership of Autumntide would be familiar with the basic historical details of Medieval France and so did not provide a sustained narrative of Burgundy's rise and fall. However, English-speaking readers have often been at a disadvantage in respect to the chronology of French history. A brief summary might therefore be useful.

Burgundy's rise began when Philip the Bold received the Duchy of Burgundy from his father, King John of France, in 1361. Although he was John's youngest son, he proved the most capable. A skillful statesman, Philip transformed Burgundy into a powerful feudal state.

Philip died in 1404 and was succeeded by John the Fearless. As his nickname suggests, John was belligerent and ruthless, leading to his assassination in 1419. John's heir, Philip the Good, joined in an alliance with England against France, which made Burgundy even more of a power to be reckoned with. By the time Philip died in 1467, Burgundy was a de-facto kingdom of its own, stretching from its subject territories in present day Belgium and Holland down to central France.

Philip the Good (left) & Charles the Bold, from the Collection of Arras 

Philip's son, Charles, was nicknamed the "Bold" as his ancestor had been, but his rash courage proved to be Burgundy's undoing.

Charles had delusions of grandeur exceeding what even the vast financial resources of Burgundy could support. He was also a major devotee of the code of Chivalry. In a reckless series of wars, Charles threatened the reviving power of the French monarchy and incurred the enmity of the Swiss Confederation, whose pike-wielding infantrymen joined an alliance against him. At the Battle of Nancy in 1477, Charles suffered a resounding defeat and was killed in hand-to-hand combat.


The Fall of Lucifer, in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Like the depiction of the fiery fall of Lucifer and his rebel angels in the Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry, the arrogant Charles and his armored paladins crashed to earth.

Why did Burgundy not succeed? Charles the Bold had a well-trained army and the latest in gunpowder-firing cannons. His weakness was a psychological dependency on a way of thought that failed to conceptualize the real world as it actually was. In embracing Chivalry, Charles marched to war with modern weapons and outmoded ideas.

Of the debilitating effects of Chivalry, Huizinga wrote:

Were statecraft and warfare actually swayed to some extent by chivalric ideas? Undoubtedly, if not in their virtues, then at least in their flaws. Just as the tragic mistakes of the present have sprung from the delusion of nationalism and cultural pride, so too the failings of the Middle Ages sprang more than once from the chivalric idea.

The "autumn" of the Middle Ages about which Huizinga wrote was matched by the "autumn" of the Europe of his times. While writing Autumntide in Leiden, Huizinga could occasionally glimpse the distant flashes of artillery fire which reduced the medieval city of Ypres, in nearby Belgium, to rubble. The almost continuous series of battles, beginning in mid-October 1914 and lasting to October 2, 1918, provided Huizinga with a vivid reminder of human folly as he worked on the final drafts of Autumntide

The Netherlands maintained neutrality, shielding it from the most devastating affects of the "Great" War I. Yet, the war's impact on Huizinga, a European scholar and astute political observer, was marked. Given the long lead-up to the conflict and the location of the main battle fronts in Belgium and northern France, it might seem natural for Huizinga to have chosen the passing of the Middle Ages as the focus of his research. Actually, Huizinga came somewhat late to the profession of history and then, only by an indirect path, to the study of the prideful, self-destructive Duchy of Burgundy. 

The young Huizinga was a brilliant linguist. In addition to several European languages, he was fluent in Sanskrit, had a working knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic and had studied Buddhism in considerable detail. When he did begin teaching history, he did so in a wide-ranging manner, without specializing in a specific era. When it came time to publish a major work, he seemed destined to write a great treatise on Asian history rather than a subject closer to home.

Poster for the Les Primitif Flamands Exhibition, 1902 

Then, in 1902, one of the great art exhibitions of all time was held in Bruges, Belgium. Les Primitif Flamands displayed 400 works by the early Flemish masters of the 1300's-1400's, including Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. Huizinga, accompanied by his lively, vivacious wife, Mary, who died tragically young in 1914, attended the exhibition.

Huizinga began thinking deeply on the paintings of van Eyck, van der Weyden and the others - which of course, were anything but primitif. Indeed, many scholars of Huizinga's day and later elevated these Flemish masters to the status of trend-setting innovators, equal in skill to the great Italian artists of the early Renaissance. This is still a valid conception, as can be seen in the notable book, The New Art of the Fifteenth Century by Shirley Neilsen, which I reviewed back in 2015.

Huizinga, however, came to a different conclusion. 

In a moment of epiphany while taking his afternoon walk, Huizinga realized that van Eyck's paintings, despite their realism and the revolutionary implications of painting in oil, were medieval masterpieces. Van Eyck's Ghent Alterpiece and other works represented the consummation of the civilization of the Middle Ages rather than the opening act of the Renaissance.

Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434 (and detail)

We would like to think of Jan van Eyck as an early example of the Renaissance individualist. After all, his signature on the portrait, Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, is still clearly visible: Johannes de eyck fuit hic, 1434. Jan van Eyck was here. In painting a work for a patron like Arnolfini, an Italian merchant and a personal friend, van Eyck could make his personal mark. But painting for his noble master, the Duke of Burgundy, was an entirely different matter.

When van Eyck served the Duke or a high-ranking Church official, he did so in the capacity of a servant.  He was a highly regarded and well-paid one to be sure, but still a servant. He and contemporaries like Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling were tasked to emphasize splendor rather than beauty in works for noble patrons. For the Church, a complex code of symbolism ruled what could be painted.

Hans Memling, The Annunciation, c. 1465-70

As Huizinga astutely realized, the Flemish painters' astonishing mastery of the material details of their subjects - the texture of brocade cloth, the shimmer of silk, the polished surface of an armor breastplate - reflected the hierarchical code of the Middle Ages. 

In a passage toward the end of the book, Huizinga pronounced that "Art from the end of the Middle Ages faithfully reflects the spirit of the end of the Middle Ages, a spirit that had reached the end of its path."

That might seem so evident as to be beside the point. In fact, it is a key insight. 

The forms of life - technology, finance, social relationships - during the 1300's-1400's were undergoing rapid, revolutionary, change. The printing press, double-entry accounting, linear perspective in art... the list of major innovations of the era is impressive. Yet, like Charles the Bold with his state-of-the-art artillery and medieval tactics at the Battle of Nancy, Europe's power elite could neither comprehend nor control the vast changes taking place.

Huizinga concluded that the next historical epoch began, not with a dramatic event or sequence of events, but rather with a mood change, a mental re-orientation. "The Renaissance comes only," he wrote, "when the tone of life turns..."

It took quite a while for leaders all over Europe to come to grips with this change in the "tone of life."

Ironically, Huizinga himself grappled with a variation of this problem - how to describe it in the title of his book.

As he neared the publication date, Huizinga struggled on what to call his book. As Graham Small notes in his excellent essay on Huizinga, the perplexed author kept choosing and rejecting titles before finally selecting Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen or Autumn of the Middle Ages. It was just the beginning of long, eventful publication career for Huizinga's classic work.

Huizinga's "big book on Burgundy" was finally published in early 1919, during the uneasy interim between the Armistice of November 1918 and the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty on June 28, 1919. Herfsttij was translated and published in England in 1924, in what is regarded as a very accomplished, though abridged, translation. The title was changed to The Waning of the Middle Ages

Cover art for earlier U.S. editions of Autumntide of the Middle Ages

"Waning" is an odd, somewhat unsettling word, as if civilizations go through phases like the moon. The French translation used the more comprehensible "Decline" to express what happened to medieval society during its last century. But perhaps most bizarrely, the French waited until 1932 to publish Le Déclin du Moyen Age, even though its main focus was on Burgundy, the French speaking communities of Belgium and the overarching society and culture of France itself.

Huizinga kept working on further editions of Herfsttij/Autumntide until the one published in 1941. By then, Nazi Germany had invaded the Netherlands. Huizinga published articles critical of the Third Reich, even as the Wehrmacht's jackbooted troops occupied Holland. Huizinga was arrested in 1942 and ousted from his professorship at Leiden University. Placed under virtual house arrest, he died on February 1, 1945, during the "hunger winter" which preceded the Allied liberation.

On a personal note, I must say that reading Autumntide of the Middle Ages during a year marked by a horrifying pandemic and by political turmoil has been a sobering, yet somehow reassuring experience. I struggled reading The Waning of the Middle Ages during college. Now in the "autumn" of my life, I can only marvel at the extraordinary insights of its brilliant, courageous author.

One hundred years ago, Johan Huizinga wrote a masterful book about a bygone era which yielded cogent reflections for his own time - and "food for thought" for ours. 


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                              

Introductory Image:                                                                              Cover Art of Autumntide of the Middle Ages, courtesy of the University of Leiden © University of Leiden

The Garden of Love, from the Romance of the Rose, c. 1490-1500. Manuscript. British Library. Harley MSS. 4425

Title page of Autumntide of the Middle Ages, by Johan Huizinga, published by the University of Leiden, 2020

Jean Le Noir ((French, active 1331–75-attributed to) The Three Living and the Three Dead, from the Psalter of Bonne of Luxembourg, before 1349.Tempera, grisaille, ink, and gold on vellum: individual folios: 4 15/16 x 3 9/16 in. (12.6 x 9 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1969. #69.86

Ivory Plaque with Tournement Scene, c. 1320-1340. Ivory: 3 7/8 x 6 15/16 x 1/4 in. (9.8 x 17.6 x 0.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art.Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917. # 17.190.256

Philippe le Bon and Charles le Téméraire, extract from the Collection of Arras (ms. 266), work attributed to Jacques Le Boucq, 16th century, Arras, municipal media library. © Arras Media Library

Limbourg Brothers (French, 1400-1416) The Fall of Lucifer, in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Folio 64 verso. Illuminated manuscript. Musee Conde.  

Poster for the Les Primitif Flamands Exhibition, 1902. Bruges collections, Musea Brugge.

Jan van Eyck (Flemish, active 1422; died 1441) Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434. Oil on oak: 82.2 x 60 cm. National Gallery of Art, London. Purchased, 1842, # NG42

Hans Memling (Netherlandish, active by 1465–died 1494) The Annunciation, c. 1465–70. Oil on wood: 73 1/4 x 45 1/4 in. (186.1 x 114.9 cm) Metropolitan museum of Art. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 #17.190.7

Cover art for earlier U.S. editions of Autumntide of the Middle Ages

Monday, October 19, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Street Art Africa by Cale Waddacor

 Street Art Africa

by Cale Waddacor
Thames & Hudson/$39.95/271 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

During tumultuous, turbulent times, artists tend to "go big." Modern-day Africa is facing many challenges and its artists are responding with large scale works, many of which are the size of a building's wall - because that's where they are painted!

Creating bold, public art is the unifying theme of Street Art Africa, a brilliant new book by Cale Waddacor. Little known painters, with signatures or monikers like AIRJP Tagman, Dekor One and Mad Zoo TRK have transformed often-reviled grafitti painting into striking art forms and hard-to-ignore political manifestos.

Going "big" for some of Africa's street artists is no figure of speech. A Tunisian artist born in France, eL Seed, painted a spectacular mural stretching across fifty buildings in the Zaraeeb neighborhood in Cairo, home to the city's often-scorned garbage collectors. Painting in a style known as "calligraffiti,"  eL Seed dedicates his art to promoting awareness of human dignity.

Surveying graffiti/mural paintings by 200 artists from across a vast and regionally diverse expanse, Cale Waddacor makes a convincing case that Africa's street art is both unique to the continent and a growing global force. A multi-talented artist, writer and photographer from South Africa, Waddacor investigated the street art of his native country. He launched a web site devoted to the graffiti and murals of South Africa and published Graffiti South Africa in 2014, a book similar in format to Street Art Africa.

Waddacor briefly reaches back in time, reminding us of the pictographs of ancient African artists on rocky outcrops and the wall paintings of New Kingdom Egypt. The haunting image of a lion in a 2019 mural, created in Morocco, testifies to  the "ancient" presence in the African present.


Grocco. ‘Karakayn’, Mohammedia, Morocco, 2019

Waddacor's book also brings to mind how great artists, from around the world, have expanded the size of their works to match the events of the strife-torn eras during which they live.

In 1784, as the French Revolution loomed, Jacques-Louis David painted The Oath of the Horatii on an epic scale, his oil on canvas measuring over 11 by 14 feet (329.8 cm × 424.8 cm). A generation later, Théodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa zoomed in size to staggering dimensions, 16 feet, 1 inch, by 23 feet, 6 inches (491 by 716 cm). 

Following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), mural painters like Diego Rivera folded-up their easels and set to work on the walls of schools and government buildings. Beginning in 1922, Rivera painted a cycle of 117 murals, in fresco like the Renaissance masters he had studied in Europe, on the walls of the Ministry of Public Education in Mexico City. The most famous work of this mural cycle had little to do with school books. Measuring over 14 by 13 feet, The Arsenal, shows people in Rivera's circle, including his wife, Frida Kahlo, distributing rifles and ammunition to insurgent workers.

What has all this to do with graffiti artists and mural painters in contemporary Africa? 

The words of the Mexican minister of education, José Vasconcelos, who commissioned Rivera's murals, are applicable to the street artists of today's Africa. Vasconcelos called for a new art, “saturated with primitive vigor ... sacrificing the exquisite to the great, perfection to invention.”

The words of Vasconcelos' bold declaration are as true today as in 1920, except for "primitive," a word once widely-used to describe African culture. 

African street art is anything but primitive. Despite the growing sophistication in African mural painting, the base level of skill and motivation of its practitioners has been impressive from the start. The "reach" of African street art has seldom eluded the grasp of its artists.

Indeed, there are deep levels of philosophical awareness among the street artists of Africa. Waddacor quotes Jobray, an artist from Uganda:

What makes African graffiti unique is the fact that most graffiti artists explore their personal stories. They involve their cultural backgrounds in their themes and concepts and communicate with people. The visual aspect creates a connection; a deeper contact and understanding.

                                         Chadi Ilias, Photo (2019)                               Murals at the Casamouja: Urban Art Wave, Casablanca, Morocco

African street art is essentially an urban phenomenon. The response of municipal, regional and municipal governments varies widely. Some officials accept it with enthusiasm, others with bureaucratic indifference; some are downright hostile. It is the reaction of the people on the "street" that matters. The results, usually, are not merely positive but are proactive.

Waddacor quotes a South African artist, known simply as r1. An amazingly talented innovator, r1 uses barrier tape to create mandala designs of hypnotic power. r1 perceptively notes the way that people in local communities embrace the personal statements of street artists, interpreting the murals in the light of their own experience.

What I find fascinating about working in the street is the interaction that takes place between the passer-by and the art piece. As soon as you put a piece up it gets a life of its own and becomes open to interpretation. I receive fascinating opinions from very diverse backgrounds.

Before proceeding further, it is important to reflect on the nature of graffiti in Africa. The emphasis on the "personal" in African graffiti does not mean the same thing as it does in America. Some African artists meet together to "bomb" a vacant wall, that is illegally paint public or privately-owned surfaces with their "signatures" and graffiti designs. However, most of the time they seek permission from building owners or government officials before painting.

     Kibuuka Mukisa Oscar, Photo (2018)      
Chela. Afri-Cans Festival, (2nd edn), Kampala, Uganda, 2018 

It is also interesting to note that aerosol cans of spray paint are still rare in some regions of Africa. These are regarded as highly-prized tools for creating art. When spray paint is unavailable, street artists use acrylic paint and brushes. Whatever the medium, the results are striking and powerful, often masterful. 

When you view monumental works of street art like those painted by Faith XLVII on highway overpass pillars in Durban, South Africa, you are witnessing an act of the "transfiguration" of public space rather than transgression. Such mighty works of art become communal expressions of identity. 

                                      Luca Barausse Photo (2020)                                    Faith XLVII's A Study of Warwick Triangle at Rush Hour, 2014

Along with the photo above, Street Art Africa shows another picture of a concrete pillar, also painted by Faith XLVII, with local street merchants selling their wares beneath the looming figure of an elderly woman dressed in traditional African garb. It is a magnificent image, showing art as a vibrant fixture of everyday life and a spectacular example of African popular culture.

Street Art Africa keeps this vast array of art, artists, regional influences and differences in check by a tour de force of integration. Organized by region, starting with East Africa, Waddacor's book presents a wealth of detail. Street Art Africa is readily understandable for general readers, as well as specialists in art. (There is a glossary of street art terms which I found particularly useful.) Basic, broad-view information about the street art of particular nations is complemented by special sections focusing on art festivals and interviews with twelve leading African street artists.

Page Displays from Street Art Africa, 2020

It is almost redundant to say that Street Art Africa is an important and innovative book. Yet, its basic excellence needs to be underscored. Waddacar did not dash-off a jumble of personal remarks and "filler" to accompany colorful illustrations. This is a mature and insightful book which opens-up a vital new chapter of the visual arts and its integration with communities all over Africa.

Hopefully, the continent-wide embrace of street art will help the nations and peoples of Africa transcend the artificial, destructive barriers which divide them. More hopefully still, the vibrant street art of Africa will spread its healing power around the globe.

Indeed, several of the artists who appear in Street Art Africa have become major figures on the international art scene. In 2019, Faith XLVII completed a towering mural in Philadelphia. Entitled The Silent Watcher, the mural measures 11,000 square feet, standing 19 stories tall. The "silent watcher" is a young woman whose gentle, caring face looks down with compassion on the neighborhood adjacent to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

Faith XLVII's Silent Watcher is a compelling image and so too are most of the pictures appearing on the pages of Cale Waddacor's wondrous book. As I marvel at these photos, I can only hope and say:

Today Africa, tomorrow the world.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                              

All images courtesy of Thames & Hudson Publishers.

Introductory Image:                                                                                    Ayaa Pixels Photo (2019)  Moh Awudu. Chale Wote Street Art Festival (9th edn), Accra, Ghana, 2019

Cover Art of Street Art Africa, courtesy of Thames & Hudson, 2020

Grocco. ‘Karakayn’, Mohammedia, Morocco, 2019

Chadi Ilias, Photo (2019) Murals by Krafts the A.O. & Ser One (France), Moh Awudu, Nofal O-one. at the Casamouja: Urban Art Wave Festival, Casablanca, Morocco, 2019    

Kibuuka Mukisa Oscar, Photo (2018) Chela. Afri-Cans Festival, (2nd edn), Kampala, Uganda, 2018

Luca Barausse Photo (2020) Faith XLVII's A Study of Warwick Triangle at Rush Hour, 2014, Durban, South Africa, 2014

Page Displays from Street Art Africa, 2020:  pp. 94-95, Angola in Focus; pp. 254-255, Artist profile of Nardstar*

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elijah Pierce's America at the Barnes Foundation

Elijah Pierce's America

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
September 27, 2020 - January 10, 2021

Reviewed by Ed Voves

According to the strict, tightly focused definitions of art scholarship, Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) was a "self-taught" artist. This categorization is essentially correct - but not entirely. The African-American wood carver, whose works are featured in a major retrospective at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, certainly learned by doing. He did, however, receive a little help.

When he was still a youth, Pierce's uncle, Lewis Wallace, taught him the basics of wood carving - nothing fancy, how to use a pen knife and a chisel, which remained Pierce's "go-to" tools. Later, during the 1920's and 30's, Pierce's wife, Cornelia, helped paint his carved scenes and figurines. She, also assisted him in presenting touring displays of his art in the American South and Mid-West states. 

And then, there was the direct inspiration Elijah Pierce received from God Almighty. 

Pierce was a devout Christian and a gifted preacher. He emphatically stated that God spoke to him and he felt compelled to carve a message from "on high" repeatedly in his sculptures: your life is a book and every day is a page

     Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's Your Life is a Book, 1940's

Pierce felt God's hand as well as heard His voice. He experienced at least three divine interventions in his life or "conversion experiences." One involved a near-death encounter, which took place around 1917. According to Pierce, he was struck speechless, apparently dead, after reaching for a Sears, Roebuck catalogue when he should have been reading the Bible.

In a 1979 New York Times interview, Pierce recalled the incident as God's way of "just showing you my power." Pierce told Gaylen Moore of the Times:

The house was full of people, screamin' and cryin'. They said I was dead. I didn't feel any pain. I just went out like the sun going behind a cloud. Then I came back. Since then, I'm afraid of the Lord... Every piece of work I carve is a message, a sermon. My carvings are all preaching one important message. It's what Jesus taught us when he was here on earth: Love ye one another. If I love you and you love me, I won't do you any harm and you won't do me any harm.

Pierce had enough brushes with danger to always value the precept of "Love ye one another." He narrowly avoided death while working on a railroad construction crew, but the real peril he faced came from a white mob in 1912. Returning to his home in Baldwyn, Georgia, after playing a game of baseball in Tupelo, Mississippi, Pierce was arrested and falsely accused of murder. Fortunately, he was exonerated and, acting on advice to travel by back roads to avoid vengeful "regulators," he reached safety.

A half-century later, Pierce carved a powerful depiction of the event. The episodic treatment of the incident recalls great narrative sequences in art history like ancient Egyptian wall paintings or the bas-reliefs of Trajan's Column in the Roman Forum. Deceptively simple, Pierce's carvings also evoke the hugely-popular Sunday comic pages of American newspapers.

Elijah Pierce, Elijah Escapes the Mob, 1950's

However interesting these parallels with other art forms are, Elijah Escapes the Mob needs to be appreciated as a primal expression of the artist's lived experience - and belief. The symbols carved at the very top of Elijah Escapes the Mob raise the unfolding drama beyond a lucky escape to the portrayal of an act of redemption.  

Like all good story-tellers, Pierce became adept at keeping "the story going." The same is true for preachers of God's word and Old Master artists: expand the scope of the tale in order to drive home a powerful message or moral. 

Pierce found a way to link carved scenes such as Elijah Escapes the Mob to achieve a truly epic style. He created panels presenting multiple episodes of vivid imagery. These, much like the Stations of the Cross which appear in Roman Catholic churches, illustrated incidents from sacred scripture in an episodic manner. Some were joined with metal hinges to create a diptych. The Barnes exhibition has one of these amazing diptychs on view.

       Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view Elijah Pierce's America,           showing Bible Scenes, c.1936, collection of John Jerit

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Detail of Elijah Pierce's Bible Scenes, c.1936

Interestingly, a similar approach to visualizing narrative was being innovated by artists for Hollywood studios during the 1930's, at the same time Pierce was carving his depictions of Biblical events. Webb Smith of the Disney Studio and William Cameron Menzies, art director for Gone with the Wind, drew illustrated storyboards to plot the sequential flow of motion pictures.

Very few of Pierce's panels have been preserved. Most of them were disassembled so that the individual carved scenes could more readily be collected. The greatest example of Pierce's multi-scene oeuvre, however, did survive and it is a jaw-dropping sensation: The Book of Wood.

     Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's The Book of Wood, 1932

The Book of Wood was created in 1932, the nadir of the Great Depression, when Pierce, a talented barber, often faced unemployment. He carved thirty-three scenes depicting the life of Jesus, at the behest of his wife Cornelia. These were mounted on massive cardboard "pages" and bound to form a truly, one-in-a-kind testament.

Initially, Pierce “thought it was the dumbest thing I ever heard of.” But his wife - and God - thought differently.

Elijah and Cornelia Pierce took The Book of Wood on tour during the 1930's and 40's. The stunning, pictorial volume provided a visual counterpoint to Pierce's sermons to evangelical Christian congregations. The Pierces raised some modest funds from these tours, enough to keep body and soul together during these difficult years.

Sadly, Cornelia Pierce died from cancer in 1948. Elijah Pierce kept The Book of Wood on display in the barbershop in Columbus, Ohio, which he was able to establish in 1951 after years of working for other entrepreneurs. Now in the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, The Book of Wood is an authentic expression of religious faith and of artistic skill. 

Pierce also carved individual figures and sculptural tableaux. The subject matter was largely drawn from the Bible, including Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Jesus. These were notable incidents of anguish and pain, ultimately redeemed by God's intervention, saving Isaac at the last minute and empowering the Resurrection of Jesus. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's The Crucifixion, c. 1930-40

Elijah Pierce's own time of troubles and triumph coincided with the Great Migration of African-Americans to the industrial North and Midwest during the first half of the twentieth century. Pierce joined the Great Migration, eventually settling in Columbus, Ohio. Ironically, for a young man who hated farm work, Pierce created several idyllic depictions of the rural South of his childhood.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's The Little White Church, 1936

The "Black Belt" of the Southern states was hardly a "paradise lost." Pierce was a sober realist, with sense of humor sharpened by experience. His art reflects this great social transformation, ranging from humorous figurines burdened with bundles of possessions dangling from a traveling stick to searing social commentary. 

Pierce's Presidents and Convicts, created in 1941, depicts an actual event in his life. Traveling back to Georgia, Pierce witnessed  a chain-gang of convicts pressed to hard labor on road work. Although not limited to African-American prisoners, the chain-gang system represented a special threat as African-Americans could be arrested on the most trivial and unsubstantiated charges and sentenced to years of harsh and degrading work. For Pierce, who barely escaped conviction, this was a nightmarish reality impossible to forget.

Elijah Pierce, Presidents and Convicts, 1941

Later in life, Pierce carved portraits of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. President John F. Kennedy, sports heroes Joe Louis and Hank Aaron and others. Pierce used images from the major magazines of the period, Life, Look and Ebony, as his source material for these carved portraits.

As can be seen with the introductory image of this review, depicting Rev. King and an angel, accurate likenesses were not Pierce's strong suit. Spiritual resonance and character strength, however, make their presence felt almost immediately when you view these remarkable works of art. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020)
Gallery view of Elijah Pierce's America, showing
 The Statue of Liberty, 1973, and Spreading the Light, 1933.

This is notably the case, in the side-by-side presentation of Pierce's portraits of Harriet Tubman and the Statue of Liberty. As a physical resemblance of the great heroine of the Underground Railroad or an accurate depiction of Lady Liberty, these works may appear "naive." In fact, they are sincere affirmations of the foundational values of American society.

Pierce labored most of his life in obscurity. Fortunately, he was "discovered" in 1971 by Boris Gruenwald, a graduate student at Ohio State University, who mounted an exhibition of Pierce's work at the OSU art gallery. Following this breakthrough, Pierce exhibited his art at the National Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Two years later, Pierce received the first prize at the International Meeting of Naive Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship. Pierce died on May 7, 1984.

Elijah Pierce was truly an artist of genius. Yet, it is important to place him within the ranks of remarkable African-American artists who were his contemporaries. These included entirely self-taught artists like Bill Traylor or self-directed ones like Augusta Savage, who received formal training after clearly demonstrating her talents. Together with stone carver William Edmundson, painter Minnie Evans and others, these African-American artists brought traditional skills, religious convictions and social values to the dialog which reshaped American society for the better during the twentieth century.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020)
Exhibit wall-text for Elijah Pierce's America at the Barnes Foundation

Special praise - in this troubled century - needs to be accorded to the art curators who planned and organized Elijah Pierce's America. Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation and Zoe Whitley, Director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, somehow managed, under incredibly difficult circumstances, to mount this outstanding exhibition in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020)
Gallery view of Elijah Pierce's America at the Barnes Foundation

Elijah Pierce's America is a magnificent and much-needed testimonial to a  great African-American artist and a great American.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Original Images, copyright of Ed Voves; exhibit images courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

Introductory Image:
Elijah Pierce (American, 1892–1984) Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.), date unknown. Paint, glitter, and varnish on wood: 19 × 16 in. (48.3 × 40.6 cm) The Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's Your Life is a Book, 1940's

Elijah Pierce(American,1892-1984) Elijah Escapes the Mob, 1950's. Paint on carved wood: 27 1/2 × 28 3/8 × 1 in. (69.9 × 72.1 × 2.5 cm) Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Museum Purchase, 2001.018 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view Elijah Pierce's Americashowing Bible Scenes, c.1936, collection of John Jerit

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Detail of Elijah Pierce's Bible Scenes, c.1936

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's The Book of Wood, 1932. Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Museum Purchase, 1985.003.002a–d

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's The Crucifixion, c. 1930-40

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Elijah Pierce's The Little White Church, 1936. Collection of Mrs. Gerhard E. Martin

Elijah Pierce (American,1892-1984) Presidents and Convicts, 1941. Paint on carved wood, mounted on corrugated cardboard: 33.5 x 24.88 in. (85.1 x 63.2 cm.)Museum of Everything, London.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of Elijah Pierce's America, showing
The Statue of Liberty, 1973, and Spreading the Light, 1933.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Exhibit wall-text for Elijah Pierce's America at the Barnes Foundation.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of Elijah Pierce's America at the Barnes Foundation