Friday, February 10, 2012

Howard Pyle Exhibit Catalog Gripes

The Delaware Art Museum has an exhibit (November 12, 2011 – March 4, 2012) dealing with famed illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911). It opened three days after the 100th anniversary of Pyle's death.

The cover of the exhibit's catalog is shown above. If you can't visit the museum store, you can order the catalog here.

I have issues with the catalog. That's because it drifts a small way into the cesspool of academic political correctness which, in my possibly warped judgment, is unfair to both the subject and readers interested enough in the subject to fork over the $45 cost of the book.

First, the positive elements. I thought the chapter by illustrator James Gurney was especially informative, probably because he is knowledgeable about the history of illustration and understands the trade's practical aspects. As for the authors of the other chapters, I didn't at first know who they are because nowhere in the book is there any background information. Gurney is not identified either; I'm aware of him because I follow his blog (linked above).

Although there is some subject matter overlap, most of the chapters are informative, even the one dealing with Pyle and the Swedenborgian Faith that was related to some of his works.

One place that ruffled my feathers was a chapter titled "The Gender of Illustration: Howard Pyle, Masculinity, and the Fate of American Art" by Eric J. Segal. Some Googling suggests that this Segal is on the faculty of the University of Florida and has written about masculinity with respect to Norman Rockwell and the matter of race as related to the Saturday Evening Post magazine. "Gender" and race are two politically motivated academic obsessions of the last few decades, so I suppose Segal is doing a nice job of building his career dealing with those and related subjects. I regard this business of applying currently fashionable views as a yardstick for evaluating a past that was essentially unaware of them as both intellectually silly and potentially dangerous to the reputations of worthy historical figures. This chapter should never have been included in the catalog.

I also had a problem with part of the chapter "The Persistence of Pirates: Pyle, Piracy, and the Silver Screen" by David M. Lubin. Lubin's chapter isn't all that bad except where he takes several detours attempting to link piracy to late 19th century capitalists, a gratuitous gesture unnecessary to the chapter's subject. Lubin is on the faculty of Wake Forest University.

As for my overall reaction to the catalog, I would have preferred more larger reproductions of Pyle's art and a lot less "scholarly" analysis.


Anonymous said...

During Howard Pyle's lifetime, the Southern states of the United States enacted Jim Crow racial segregation, thousands of African Americans were lynched by racist white mobs and women were denied the right to vote. What can it mean to say that this past was @essentially unaware" of race and gender?

Donald Pittenger said...

Anonymous -- No doubt he knew about Jim Crow and lynchings, ditto women's suffrage. But since these matters were not depicted in works of his that I'm aware of, then the issues are irrelevant to a study of Pyle and his art.

By the way, do you have a name? I stand by my opinions with a name and even a mugshot: maybe you should too.

Anthony Watkins said...

Donald, I know from what I've read that Pyle was a racist and that he may have been of two minds about gender equality in art.Some of the racist illustrations he presented to editors were rejected and he modified his approach and produced some black-and-white work featuring African-Americans which was free of taint.
I don't regard our modern concerns for ending race and gender discrimination as "currently fashionable views". I think that as long as some people insist on acting on their bigotry, the people affected will continue to push back- maybe for another few decades until the problem dies down. I think a writer has a duty to place artists within their times and duly note which ones did and which ones did not transcend them. Just as long as their work remains the main focus of the catalog as a whole I think the approach is sound.
We apply our present day standards to past people and events because we have no other standards we can honestly use. I am disappointed by Pyle the man and I am glad not to have to meet him. I am enthralled by his work and I am glad to see it. I would not recommend his writings, laced as they were with racist references, but I wholeheartedly recommend his paintings for their dramatic compositions, light and shade, tonal integrity and fine drawing.
We really do have to take historical figures whole. Some are
going to remain vital despite the warts, and some will not.

Eric Segal said...

Hi Donald,

This is Eric Segal. I ran across your blog, and gather you did not like my essay. Your comment does mention the title of the chapter (thank you), but is mostly personal in its critique of me (Ouch! Really, I’m not such a bad person). I hope you will consider rereading the article with the following in mind.

I take Pyle very seriously and I take popular illustration very seriously, as well. I think this is important stuff. People loved Pyle’s work in his day (as they do today), and the fact that they connected with his stories and images suggests that we can learn something about their values and beliefs by thinking carefully about what Pyle’s work looks like (although not in this particular article), what he wrote, and what he had to say about his work.

I agree with you that it would be silly to simply impose alien value systems on the past, which is exactly why I read Pyle’s words very closely in trying to understand what he believed illustration could achieve as a great art in America. Why wouldn’t his beliefs about a national art be tied to his beliefs about what makes a great nation? And, why wouldn’t his beliefs – both consciously articulated and implicitly suggested – about a great nation be tied to his ideas about who the people of that nation are, their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their religion, and so forth, all things he and his contemporaries commented upon? All of this is made very explicit in the writings of the very widely read art critic Sadakichi Hartmann, who was a contemporary of Pyle, and one of his admirers (see page 127 of the essay).

So two quick points: 1) a glance at the essay will, I believe, dispel the perception that it is anachronistic in its terms and concerns. 2) the whole essay tries to get at deep beliefs about illustration in the early twentieth-century, something that almost no one does today because the people who write about illustration are too often concerned with claiming “It’s an art!!!!”, rather than trying to understand what kind of art it was for those who pursued and cherished it in their day.

Thanks for the chance to respond.