Art Thoughts, Week 20 -- Pippin & Salvation

Woman of Samaria, Horace Pippin, (American, 1888—1946), 1940, oil on canvas, BF 986.

Horace Pippin is sometimes called a naïve painter. Naïve painting has many similarities and affinities to outsider, now mostly called visionary, painting, as well as simply self-taught artists. Naïveté in the painting world usually pertains to formal concerns (composition; depiction; color choice) rather than conceptual or otherwise. And certainly in no way can this painting by Pippin in the Barnes Foundation, Woman of Samaria, be considered naïve in any other way than formal – and even that is debatable.

The first impression upon looking at this painting is the incredible sky – an almost apocalyptic pink, emblazoned with grey clouds, sizzles in the background. The foreground is dominated by tarry blacks and deep forest greens; it is an almost inscrutable space, in the manner of Albert Pinkham Ryder. And in the middle of this edgy landscape sits Christ at the well in Samaria, a region near ancient Palestine, conversing calmly with a penitent woman come to draw water. The composition is fairly typical of a genre painting – in fact, Pippin may have drawn this image from a biblical illustration, print or other publication as self-taught artists often do – but the color is anything but typical. Another odd thing: one somehow expects Christ to be beckoning towards the woman, in an invitational manner, or emphasizing towards the well, as in the biblical story. But no; he is motioning towards the darkened woods that they are on the edge of – a foreboding place – and the woman is straining towards him, seemingly hanging on every word. The well, symbolic of offered salvation, floats in a - literally and figuratively -gray area between the distant fiery sky, and the nearer at hand dark forest.

Might this indicate that Jesus is offering the woman escape from an atmosphere of heightening danger? Is this, along with the conflagratory sky, indicating the imperative of accepting salvation – no time to consider; they are at our heels! It almost seems that way.

Another possibility, though, presents itself once one remembers that naïve and visionary art both often deal with internal drive rather than exterior impetus: or at least, the aesthetic drive usually goes that direction. That is, the artist’s reasons for deciding to create something is often not driven by outside influences, such as nature or light or a beautiful face; it is more often rather suggested by some spiritual vision, or persistent internal idea. (In this way, these artists have more affinity with conceptual art than they do with traditional realism.) So, could the bellicose pink sunset, and Jesus’ imperative gesture towards the dangers of the forest, belie not actual danger in the real, but a spiritual and psychological immediacy in the woman’s heart? Could her soul, rather than simply her body, be on the line in this painting; could the burning in the sky indicate the burning in her heart on encountering the incarnate God? Indeed, the apostles of Emmaus in the book of Acts remarked breathlessly to themselves, after realizing the Lord had been there unbeknownst to them, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us?” (And Pippin was no stranger to the dangers implicit in wartime.) In this way, Pippin’s use of almost toxic, cosmic colors speaks of a spiritual imperative; an immediacy of salvation; a time of decision at hand. And we thus arrive at another prime motive in naïve and visionary art: message. And what more classically Western spiritual message than the imperative of the gospel, as iterated through the woman of Samaria? Pippin has painted his message well.

Punky Bruise-ster  – (Thursday, 03 July, 2008)  

Is this practice for your class? :)

GIERSCHICK  – (Thursday, 03 July, 2008)  

Mmmm, maybe ;-) Thanks for the reminder, I want to pick up at least one book today to study over vacation...

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