After spending quite some time browsing through the overwhelming archives of prints and drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art I came upon a 2005 print by Kara Walker entitled “Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” and a drawing from the mid 1800s by Victor Hugo the famed literary icon. Both of these pieces have strong political stances, however, they are both executed with such vision that they could stand as strong visual works outside of their political commentary.
Walker's offset lithograph with silkscreen appeared to incorporate appropriated imagery which was confirmed with a bit of research by the Leroy Neiman Center for Print Studies on the Columbia website, where Walker teaches. This print is devoid of color which would appear to be staying true to both the appropriated source material and Walker's vocabulary of using silhouettes in her work. The absence of color here also reinforces the political narrative on several levels. The most obvious of which is the fact that the civil war had a great deal to do with race and class issues. The lack of color also enables the message to come through in greater clarity and have a more jarring impact. Her use of the graphic silhouette on top of the traditional wood engraving acts as a bold stamp on to this historical print.
This stamp is the artist's voice shouting what the original is missing. It's the unheard voice of the oppressed for which the civil war was of incredible significance. The use of an anonymous graphic silhouette instead of a character that features more detail allows the viewer an easy access point to engage with subject matter that could easily become too difficult and alienate its audience before they have the chance to fully take in the message. The title of this piece (or more specifically the title of the portfolio that includes this and 14 other prints) is also an important element that serves to deliver important information and context in an efficient and discreet manner.
The ink drawing by Victor Hugo immediately caught my eye and I was further intrigued because I was unaware of his output as a visual artist. The drawing is made with brush and what appears to be brown ink on paper. With this drawing, Hugo exhibits a phenomenal sense of design and an efficient, expressive and confident command of the brush as a tool. One of the first things that struck me about this drawing was the sense of atmosphere and the creative use of expressive marks in the rendering of the image. The composition and design of the image along with the marks come together to deliver a strong emotional impact that is undoubtedly inspired by the turbulent political climate that Hugo lived in and his views, that lead him into exile from his native France for almost twenty years. Again, as in Walker's print, the use of graphic silhouettes allow us to bear witness to something that otherwise could be considered to graphic or macabre. In this drawing it also serves to convey a different emotion than if the hangman was closer to the viewer and in more detail, an emotion that hits closer to despair and isolation than shock and awe. The birds that are flying away from the hanged man also add to this emotion, but also serve to add depth in the narrative as if they could be the liberated soul of a martyr.
It is incredibly difficult to pick a favorite out of these two as they are both so strong in their own way, however, when forced to pick one I think it would have to be the Victor Hugo drawing. I'm a sucker for great atmosphere in art and this drawing is no exception. I also love the efficiency and speed in which it appears to have been produced, this gives the piece a raw, visceral and expressive quality that is so often lost in the refinement process. I also find it interesting that he did these personal drawings as a release and only later decided to publish them as an act of charity in the form of children in need whom he would invite to dine with him. It is also of intrigue to me to see the drawings of people who primarily work in other artistic mediums and how they can be evidence of how their minds work and why they are drawn to those mediums. This drawing shows us how literary Hugo was even when he chose not to use any words at all.