Horace Pippin Conveys Compassion On Canvas

The self-taught artist had a flair for composition and color, and his bold humanity shows a keen observer at work

ON George Washington's birthday, African-American folk painter Horace Pippin was born in West Chester, Pa. 107 years ago. Wounded in battle in France's Argonne forest, where he served with the celebrated Colored Infantry Regiment in World War I, Pippin (1888-1946) began to paint as a form of physical therapy.

Sixty-nine works he produced from 1930 to 1946 are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Notable for their bold sense of design and color, as well as the spirit of community they express, the paintings still convey a healing current.

Early paintings by the self-taught painter show a flair for composition. In ``After Supper, West Chester'' (1935), two girls playing ``London Bridge'' form a pointed arch with their hands. Everything in the composition is twinned: two matriarchs in chairs, two babies on blankets, two houses, and two trees on opposite sides. Both halves of the scene are linked at a peak formed by the girls' clasped hands, inseparable and equal. The elements of composition conspire to convey the unity and harmony of the community: form and function, medium and message are one.

Pippin underlined the expressive function of composition in comments on his portrait of ``Major General Smedley D. Butler'' (1940). He included a non-naturalistic string of clouds that look like a dinosaur's spinal column behind Butler's head (``plenty of storm clouds on the horizon,'' Pippin explained, because Butler ``was always looking for trouble.'')

``Six O'Clock'' (1940), a modern version of the Madonna by the manger, is straight out of the tenebrist tradition: Pippin was probably unaware of the followers of Caravaggio, who painted dark shadows behind objects lit with fire or candlelight to bring out important elements and create a sense of intimacy.

Yet Pippin instinctively employed the strategy to create a cozy circle of homelife, consisting of mother, infant, and dog by a hearth.

Even after 1938, when Pippin was discovered by collectors and curators, he was mostly unaffected by the world into which he was introduced. His work did, however, reflect the influence of his visits to the celebrated Barnes collection in suburban Philadelphia, where he was impressed by Renoir's paintings and decided, ``I'm going to take colors out of that man's painting and get them into mine.'' As for the awkward floral still lifes Pippin then produced - let's just say he's no threat to Henri Fantin-Latour.

Pippin shines brightest in the ``memory paintings'' of his childhood, such as ``Domino Players'' (1943). Again, he expresses unity visually, through the lines and gestures of his subjects, as each arm of the trio around a table points toward or overlaps the others'.

``Sunday Morning Breakfast'' (1943) records, without sentimentalizing, the details of a domestic interior - walls with chunks of plaster missing, a torn curtain, and ragged shirt. Geometric patterning and vibrant colors (as in braided rugs and the mother's head scarf and apron) enliven the bare scene.

Pippin's work was anything but naive: Many paintings decry racial prejudice, like ``John Brown Going to His Hanging,'' ``The Whipping'' (in which an overseer lashes a slave), and ``Mr. Prejudice,'' featuring a Ku Klux Klan figure. ``Holy Mountain III'' (1945) portrays peace in the foreground (as a lion and lamb consort placidly), but violence behind the scene: grave markers, soldiers shooting, and the ``strange fruit'' Billie Holiday sang about after she witnessed a lynching victim dangling from a tree.

Dense with detail-laden emotion and enlivened by rhythmic repetition of form and color, Pippin's paintings are direct, forceful, and full of humanity. Unencumbered by academic strictures like perspective or three-dimensional modeling, his shapes have a flatness typical of untrained artists. They have a spiritual depth, however, that is gained only by keen and compassionate observation.

The exhibition takes its title, ``I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin,'' from the artist's simple but profound comment: ``Pictures just come to my mind. I think them out with my brain and then I tell my heart to go ahead.''

* The exhibition continues through April 30.

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