Why understanding the art of Horace Pippin (1888-1946) requires an understanding of his experiences in World War I.
Bernier (African-American Studies/Univ. of Nottingham; Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination, 2012, etc.) painstakingly examines Pippin’s manuscripts, paintings, and sketches to show how his meager written legacy casts revealing light on his other works. His handwritten and typewritten works demonstrate what may well have been a learning disability, which was also suggested by his schoolboy illustrations of words that he couldn’t spell. His art was reborn after his service in a black combat unit in the trenches, and he persevered despite a disabling wound to his right arm. The 100 or so drawings he made at that time are lost, supposedly to censors. However, the censors couldn’t stop his mind from creating pictures, and he proved to be an excellent memory painter. Bernier attempts to categorize the artist’s work as naif or folk art or to dub him “self-taught” as opposed to “self-made.” Pippin was “discovered” fully 10 years after the war, and the question of his work before then goes unanswered, save one disputed painting. The few letters from him to his dealer, Robert Carlen, who “represented Pippin’s artistry as indivisible from his disability,” and collector Albert Barnes offer little but a glimpse of a man who avoided sharing his personal life. The author analyzes Pippin’s work in exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—detail, comparing the scant information of his wartime experience with the stark monotones in his paintings. The highly repetitive, wordy nature of the writing presents a challenge to readers to forge through in-depth analyses filled with learned conjecture and academic speculation. The temptation to skip through sections is understandable.
Likely useful for scholars of art history, but general readers will find the book to be too dense and prolix.