Sunday, 6 November 2011

EYE 95: The Interstate as Access to Visual Delight: Delaware Art Museum / Brandywine River Museum

Howard Pyle (1853-1911) was surely never a prophet without honor in his own county. The ingenious folder catalog (with eight color repros stuffed in at the back, ready for framing and hanging), Howard Pyle: The Artist and His Legacy ($15) is replete with savoury local art history, including DAM’s origins in an art society apparently largely organized to conserve and enhance the rep of this hometown boy. He not only made good in the magazine and book media of Philly and New York but also founded the first curriculum for commercial illustrations in this country at Drexel U. (then the Institute for Art, Science and Industry), 1894-1901.

It was so successful that he returned to Wilmington to found his own school. This tandem exhibition, indeed, celebrates the diamond jubilee of DAM (its show of HP proper runs through June 21, a feisty visit for relatives in for the BiCen, DAM being an hour away from center city on I-95) as well as the continuing reverence for fin de siecle American print illustration perennially on view in one form or another at the Brandywine (which ran through May 17).

I wish I liked the shows themselves as much as I have relished learning from the dual catalog. It may be churlish to say it out loud, but Pyle’s zest and energy as a teacher are a lot more beguiling than his work. Even most of his students, who tend to be facsimiles, Pyle fils (et filles—four of the eight students billboarded are women) so to speak, are more interesting for what they reveal of the obscurantist sentimentality of our Mainline ancestors and the narrow agenda of the Curtis mass media they worked for then for enduring artistic value.

The mess, deracination, and lack of community that had demeaned the Delaware Valley since World War II can, I believe, be traced to the unleaderly escapism our cultivated classes practiced when the “Mainline’ (of the Pennsy train between Philly and Pittsburgh) became the jumping-to places for those who made megabucks in the industrial core but fled the horrors they left behind, except when they were chauffered in to sit on WASP dominated PSOrchestra boards.

Pyle’s world is a pseudo-Eden for robber barons and their progeny who were too fastidious to grapple with the city that Lincoln Steffens characterized in The Shame of the Cities as not only corrupt but “content in its corruption.” A pusillanimous aristoi is never an edifying sight, and you who would understand the pre-history of Digby Baltzell’s paradigm of a WASP elite without a sense of engagement could do no better than scrutinize Pyle and his peers iconographically.

Great art it is not. It’s the raw material for a humane sociology nonetheless. Even Woodrow Wilson’s praise for Pyle’s illustrations for his George Washington biography rings jarringly on the tuned-in ear. This, after all, was the same President who praised D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation,” as “history written in lightening.” By their encomia shall ye know them! Another invaluable contribution of these two cheers for Pyle and his followers are the pre-Hippie artist colony photos. How staid! How stiff!

From Art Matters, July 1987

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