When we were kids we got to indulge in lavishly illustrated picture books, but then not again until we read to our own children and then grandchildren. Yet there’s great pleasure in picture books, where word and image marry to transport us on fantastical adventures.
This year Philadelphia has been celebrating a form of the picture book, the fraktur, with exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Free Library, and Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. These exhibits look at the traditional illustrated manuscripts made by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania beginning in 1683, as well as art with text and references to fraktur by contemporary artists.
Imagery populating frakturs includes birds, hearts, and flowers, especially tulips, and mythical figures such as angels, mermaids, unicorns, and wonderfish (a fish with a human head and swan feet, sometimes wearing a crown and carrying weaponry). Houses are often at the center. Frequently executed in watercolor, fraktur paintings are flat, primitive, bright, and spritely, and the proportions are fantastical — birds, for example, are as large as humans. Many fraktur have elaborate borders covered with scrollwork or are filled with pattern, especially on the wings of birds.
Originally developed in German-speaking areas of Europe in the 1500s, these illustrated texts were made to serve as records of important life events, such as births, baptisms, and weddings. Many expressed religious sentiments or served as personal papers. They included love letters and New Year’s greetings, and were also an educational tool for children. Pennsylvania Germans took great care to preserve them.
Intricate lettering is a basic feature of most fraktur. If you’ve heard the term “fraktur,” chances are it’s referring to the typeface, a kind of fractured lettering. Many frakturs were handmade, but some were produced on a printing press.
To celebrate a promised gift of more than 230 works of fraktur, PMA exhibited works created between 1750 and 1850 in the counties of southeastern Pennsylvania in “Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection.” Though no longer on view, a catalog, considered the most comprehensive study of fraktur, provides an excellent background — it is available through the museum.
“Fraktur has become one of the most distinctive and iconic forms of American folk art,” writes Winterthur assistant curator Lisa Minardi in the richly illustrated tome.
From Minardi we learn that Henry Chapman Mercer — whose iconic poured concrete castles Fonthill, Moravian Tileworks, and the Mercer Museum are major attractions in Doylestown, Pennsylvania — wrote the first comprehensive study of fraktur in 1897, “The Survival of the Medieval Art of Illuminative Writing among Pennsylvania Germans.” PMA was one of the first museums to collect Pennsylvania German fraktur, as did Albert Barnes and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The extraordinary breadth and depth of the Johnson collection offers significant new contributions to fraktur studies,” Minardi writes. And it sparked the idea for the contemporary fraktur exhibits.
Allusions to Pennsylvania German folk art are also found in “Shelley Spector: Keep the Home Fires Burning,” on view through September 27 at Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Philadelphia-based artist creates a site-specific installation from reclaimed wood and textiles, furniture parts, and other recycled materials, but powered with symbols: A tree of life, a house, and a married couple are among the symbols from an embroidery sampler Spector reinterprets in three dimensions.
At the heart of Spector’s installation is the large embroidered Pennsylvania German “show towel,” from the museum’s holdings, designed by Frances Lichten (1889-1961) and stitched by her mother. When Lichten died, her partner, Katherine Milhous, donated the sampler to PMA.
The work caught Spector’s eye when she was invited to conceive an exhibition in response to the fraktur collection. “I use imagery such as flowers, birds, houses, and people to represent concepts — ideas larger than the literal translation of what’s shown,” Spector says. The title of the installation, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” is a quote taken from a letter to Lichten from Milhous.
“For about 40 years Lichten and Milhous lived privately as a couple in Philadelphia,” writes Spector. Lichten, an art historian and Pennsylvania folk art expert who published books about Pennsylvania German design that included her illustrations, worked at PMA, cataloging and arranging decorations of Pennsylvania German art. Milhous, the daughter of Quaker printers, wrote and illustrated “The Egg Tree,” winner of the Caldecott Medal for U.S. picture books in 1951, among other works for children. The two women met in art school and collaborated on the illustrations for “They Live in South America” (1942) by Alice Dalgliesh. The papers of Lichten and Milhous are in the collection of the Free Library.
“In their time together, beginning almost a century ago, they held traditional concerns and desires for freedom, safety, home, and love. These same ideas are represented in the wall embroidery that Lichten created with her mother,” says Spector. Inspired by these relationships, Spector invited her own mother to join in the making of “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” creating work based on symbols of universal hope.
“Throughout the two and a half years that I worked on this project, I uncovered many connections — such as my family’s, Philadelphia’s, and the museum’s history in the textile industry, and the common use of images like trees, birds, and flowers in disparate cultures (there are also references to Jewish and Indian folk art in the installation) throughout time that draw on their meaning and spiritual symbolism,” continues Spector. “But mostly love and hope revealed itself — in diverse communities, between mothers and daughters, and in loving relationships.”
Inspired by the image of a couple in the sampler, Spector created “Frances Loves Katherine” from Russian nesting dolls, in front of a house inscribed with the words “give sunshine to others.”
‘Word & Image: Contemporary Artists Connect to Fraktur,” at the Parkway Central Library through June 14 and curated by Judith Tannebaum, includes drawings, paintings, woodblock prints, and embroidery by seven international, contemporary artists.
In “Word & Image” the traditional folk art genre is reinterpreted and reframed through a contemporary lens — in fact many of these artists had no idea what fraktur was before the exhibit began. Each of the contemporary artists uses text or type as a visual component of their work.
At the top of the grand staircase is a bedstead made of found wood on which is printed, in block letters, such phrases as “Singers make the USA sing,” “Creating Things: Making things happen is the opposite of destruction and war,” and “Coffee and other stimulants will save America.” It was created by Bob and Roberta Smith, the pseudonym for Patrick Brill, an artist from England who at one time collaborated with his sister, Roberta. Much of his art takes the form of painted slogans on found wood. “Art makes people powerful” and “Art, music, poetry, design, literature and architecture are the principle means human beings define themselves” appear elsewhere. Smith/Brill is one of the founders of the Art Party, in response to the Tea Party.
In another work, over a portrait of George Washington, are the words “No one owns art.” Smith/Brill also painted the speech Picasso gave to the 1950 Peace Congress in Sheffield, England, in its entirety, in which Picasso recounted how his father had taught him to paint doves, the symbol for peace, and concluded by saying, “I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war.”
There is also a work by Imran Qureshi, a leading Pakistani artist who integrates 16th-century miniature painting with a contemporary aesthetic to look at social and political issues. The language of the text is Urdu, but as the artist collages and sands the page, he creates his own language. His miniatures of birds and abstract designs evoke the colors and feel of Pennsylvania German folk art.
Anthony Campuzano, who lives in Philadelphia, has created a work into which he inserted an actual note from his mother. “Put these away,” are the resonating words.
Shelley Spector: Keep the Home Fires Burning, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. Through September 27.Workshops with Spector: Sewing the Tomato Patch, Sunday, May 17, 2015 2 to 3:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 14, 2015 2 to 3:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday and Friday evenings until 8:45 p.m. $14 to $20. www.philamuseum.org.
Quill & Brush: Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Material Culture, through July 18, and Word & Image: Contemporary Artists Connect to Fraktur, through June 14, both at Philadelphia Free Public Library, 1901 Vine Street (between 19th and 20th Streets on the Parkway) Philadelphia, Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. libwww.freelibrary.org/frakturframing/exhibitions.cfm
Colorful Folk: Pennsylvania Germans & the Art of Everyday Life, Winterthur, Wilmington, Delaware. Through January 3, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $5 to $20. winterthur.org.