Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dialogues: Words and Images in Art, 1500-1924

K.[V?] Kealey, Women of Britain Say--"Go", 1915. Lithograph.
Courtesy of Georgetown University Library, Special Collection
When the exhibition opened in the end of January, someone asked me "What, exactly, does the title mean?" It was  a good question because it's a title so tied to the exhibition, that once one actually "sees" the works, the understanding is there. The 47 works in this exhibition all have a relationship to the written word. Some messages are direct, some implied, and others based on cultural or social knowledge.

One example of the direct message is through E. [V?] Kealey's recruitment lithograph Women of Britain Say--"Go".
Frank E. Schoonover, Evangeline, 1908. Oil on
panel.  Courtesy of the Schoonover Collection.

The information to explain the image with the text is there. This poster, one of many issued during World War I,  expresses the dire need to encourage men to enlist for military service.  Kealey was one of several in a team to create art promoting the war effort, and, interestingly, very little is known about him--even uncertainty about his full name! Obviously, it is the poster's message that is important, not the artist's name recognition or association with the British government. But with the marriage of text and image, the viewer gets the point.

In  contrast to the Kealey lithograph, is Frank E. Schoonover's colorful oil painting based on the poem, Evangeline. Henry W. Longfellow wrote this poem in 1847 and it was considered, (although not without criticism), the first important piece of American poetry based on an American subject. No text is included, only a smoky sky in the background, a crucifix, and a mournful maiden holding a Breton bonnet. The viewer understands the full meaning of the painting only if they are familiar with Longfellow's poem.  Clearly, Schoonover read the poem, as the heroine is wearing the blue garment and earrings, and holding a bonnet described in the verse:

Wearing her Norman hat and kirtle of blue, and the earrings, 
                             Brought in the olden time from France...

The background might depict the verses found further in the poem following the death of her father, Benedict Bellafontaine.

Pallid, with tearful eyes, and looks of saddest compassion.
       Still the blaze of the burning village illumined the landscape…

Both of these images are striking and allow the viewer opportunity for contemplation and questions. Does the artist reflect the intentions of the writer? Does the artist care if their depictions are accurate? Do images always need words to be understood? 

Come have your own dialogue with these works! This exhibition, curated by David Gariff, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art,  remains on view through April 6th.

Lucinda Dukes Edinberg
Curatorial Assistant