On Tuesday, September 2, the Fleming Museum of Art
reopens for its Fall 2014 season with the first of three exhibitions commemorating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War. A contemporary lens on the war is provided by the celebrated artist Kara Walker, in her 2005 print portfolio Kara Walker: Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). For those not familiar with her provocative work, this is a wonderful opportunity and a rich context in which to experience it.
Kara Walker is one of the most highly regarded artists working in America today. She is best known for her technique of appropriating the 18th- and 19th-century figural format of the cut-paper silhouette, interweaving Southern antebellum nostalgia, Civil War iconography, and black racist stereotypes in powerful and often discomfiting imagery.
Walker created this series of fifteen large-scale prints combining lithography and screenprinting in 2005. Each print began with an enlargement of a woodcut plate from Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Aldens Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War, first published in Chicago in 1866. Once enlarged, these illustrations were then printed using offset lithography. Finally, they were screenprinted with an overlay of Walkers signature silhouetted figures, rendered in solid black ink.
This print series marks the first time Walker has incorporated into her work the type of visual cultural material that influenced the development of her own aesthetic. With Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), Walker turns what had formerly been quaint Victorian parlor art into fueled narratives about slavery, sexuality, violence, race, and American culture. For the past twenty years, Walker has investigated disturbing aspects of American culture and human psyche through the interactions and identities of her silhouetted characters, employing a sharp-edged sense of humor. She satirizes the constructs of stereotypes as she stretches them to extreme forms, asking viewers to sort out fantasy from reality, and, in the process, examine our own prejudices.
The exhibition is one of a suite of three at the Museum this Fall which commemorates the Civil War. Also on view are Civil War Objects from the University of Vermont Collections and a rarely seen collection of battlefield drawings, Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection. Kara Walker: Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) is generously supported by the Kalkin Family Exhibitions Endowment Fund, Lillian and Billy Mauer, and the Contemporary Art Fund.