‘Horace Pippin: The Way I See It’
“I paint it exactly the way it is and exactly the way I see it.” So said Horace Pippin, in the famous quote that frames this fascinating exhibit. But the comment also contains its own contradiction, of course, because none of us see anything exactly as it is. Instead, we interpret it through the lens of our own experience.
And all of Pippin’s rich experiences are on display here, through the wonder of his art. It starts with his sketchbooks from World War I, when Pippin served in the renowned African-American unit called the “Harlem Hellfighters.” Despite suffering a war injury to his right arm, which he learned to prop up with his left one, Pippin came home and devoted himself to painting. Many of his works depict local and family life in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. He also produced harrowing scenes that he recalled from World War I—trenches, exploding shells, and gas masks.
Later in his career, he took America’s greatest internal conflict, the Civil War, as his subject. In his tributes to John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, the war’s best-known martyrs, there is a merging of Pippin’s historical and religious sensibilities. We see past and present come together in Mr. Prejudice (1943), where an ax-wielding brute threatens interracial harmony in America. The entire tableau is framed by a giant “V”, symbolizing African-Americans’ quest for a “Double Victory”—over racism, abroad and at home—during World War II.
My favorite Pippin picture shows a smoke stack at West Chester State Teachers College, now West Chester University, where I taught for four years in the 1990s. The smoke stack is long gone, as are many of the other structures that Pippin painted. Yet the communities that influenced him continue. Horace Pippin is inevitably described as “self-taught”, but he wasn’t self-made. He was nurtured by his family, the military, and the church. All of us depict things exactly the way we see them, as Pippin said. And our visions are themselves the product of our individual and collective histories, which no two people experience in exactly the same way.
For more information, visit brandywinemuseum.org.
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