Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery
Photo by Gerald Holly
Robert Frost and J J. Lankes: A Shared Vision of America
The Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery will close out its spring schedule with an exhibition featuring original woodcut prints by J.J. Lankes, who was an important illustrator for the American poet Robert Frost. "Robert Frost and J J. Lankes: A Shared Vision of America" continues through Friday, June 15, 2001.
Drawn primarily from the extensive private collection of Pat Alger, with additional material provided by Welford D. Taylor, this exhibition will focus on the woodcut art of J.J. Lankes and his relationship to the poet Robert Frost. Included in the exhibition will be rare first editions of poetry by Frost, each containing illustrations by Lankes, as well as a selection of supplemental materials including photographs, letters, hand-written versions of Frost's poetry, original woodblocks, and the artist's personal woodworking tools. Lankes' role as an illustrator for other authors will also be explored through woodblock prints, both working proofs and final editions, and first-edition books. Never exhibited before, this remarkable collection will reveal to the viewer a vignette of a rural America that is simple yet eloquent.
Robert Frost and J.J. Lankes' forty years of friendship and collaboration began in 1923 when Frost First saw a print by Lankes and then chose him to illustrate his poem "Star Splitter" for The Century Magazine. Although this event served as their formal introduction, Lankes was already familiar with Frost's poetry, and had even drawn on it for inspiration in some of his early prints. Welford D. Taylor, a prominent Lankes scholar, describes the appreciation that the poet and the printmaker had for each other's work: "What had impressed each man was a recognition of the aesthetic and thematic values he shared with the other -- a 'coincidence of taste,' as Frost put it. Both based much of their work on rural subjects, employed understatement and symbol and explored the question of human significance in the over-all scheme of nature. Some of these similarities they acknowledged when their actual correspondence began, in the summer of 1923, as Lankes prepared the 'Star-Splitter' designs." (left above: Hank Tower's Field, 1928 (L570), Woodcut print from West Running Brook by Robert Frost, Henry Holt & Co., Inc., New York, 1928, 5 5/8 x 3 1/2 inches, Collection of Pat Algier, Courtesy of the Children of J. J. Lankes)
This "coincidence of taste" between Frost and Lankes can be seen in the more literal aspects of their artistic production as well as in the less tangible characteristics of their individual work. In his catalogue essay that accompanies the exhibition, Mark Jarman notes, "Robert Frost's poems reflect a country that was still mainly rural, but undergoing a profound change. Frost had seen the migration from the Farm to the city going on around him...In Frost's poems the rootless and abandoned, the alien and the alienated, the desperate and depressed, lead their lives among pastoral settings, apple orchards and haylofts, dry stone walls and sugarhouses, backroads and secluded clearings of wildflowers." The same rural characters and pastoral scenes that are found in Frost's lines occupy Lankes' prints as well, making them fitting visual accompaniments to the poetry. Aside from the aesthetic similarities, Lankes' prints relate to Frost's poetry on a thematic level as well. Jarman writes, "Frost's greatness as an American poet is embodied in [his] wish For wholeness in a fragmented and confusing world." This search for "wholeness" easily applies to Lankes as well and his self-contained, distinctly "American" woodcuts. Also, like Frost's poetry, Lankes' art is seemingly simple and direct, yet contains an underlying quality that often touches us deeply.
Mark Jarman teaches poetry writing and contemporary poetry. His recent publications include two collections of poems, Unholy Sonnets and Questions for Ecclesiastes (winner of the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize). He is currently working on books on the religious impulse in contemporary poetry and the narrative tradition in the poetry of Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers.
Welford D. Taylor teaches 20th-century American literature and literature of the South at the University of Richmond. He is the author of several books and articles on J.J. Lankes, including the recent book Robert Frost and J.J. Lankes: Riders on Pegasus. In addition to his study of Lankes' connection to Frost, Taylor has also written articles and given lectures on Lankes' work as an illustrator for other American writers, such as Sherwood Anderson.
Essay titled "Revealing the Vision" by Welford Dunaway Taylor from the exhibition catalogue:
Robert Frost's new poem "The Star-Splitter" appeared in The Century Magazine in September 1923, embellished with five original woodcuts created specifically for this publication by J.J. Lankes (1884-1960). Although this marked the first pairing of the two artists, a bond of sorts already existed. Upon reading Frost's After Apple-Picking in 1918, Lankes had contemplated its layered meanings, while exploring how he might transform some of them into woodcut designs.Three years later he produced October (L107), the first of at least five depictions of the poem that he would create over three decades. (left: Star Splitter (Dawn), 1923 (L235), Tailpiece #1 from The Century Magazine, Century Co., New York, September, 1923, Woodblock print, 2 x 4 1/4 inches, Collection of Pat Algier, Courtesy of the Children of J. J. Lankes)
Frost, unaware of these efforts, was impressed by Lankes' Winter (L111), which appeared on the cover of Liberator in January 1922. So the following year, when asked to select an artist to illustrate "The Star-Splitter," he chose Lankes.
What had impressed each man was a recognition of the aesthetic and thematic values he shared with the other -- a "coincidence of taste," as Frost put it. Both based much of their work on rural subjects, employed understatement and symbol, and explored the question of human significance in the over-all scheme of nature. Some of these similarities they acknowledged when their actual correspondence began, in the summer of 1923, as Lankes prepared the "Star-Splitter" designs.
Such promising beginnings do not guarantee a smooth progress, and on a personal level the Frost-Lankes connection was accentuated here and there with prickly episodes. On the whole, however, these were negligible. In a spirit of mutual tolerance and solicitude, minor misunderstandings were soon forgotten. It is not surprising, then, that the friendship endured almost forty years, until Lankes' death in I960.
The artistic connection is somewhat more difficult to summarize, especially for modern readers. A major reason for this is that Lankes illustrations usually appeared in period collections of Frost's work, such as New Hampshire (1923), West Running Brook (1928), and Collected Poems (1930-1939); with the Christmas poems of 1935-1937, and 1941; and with the occasional publication of individual Frost poems in periodicals. Unfortunately, if understandably, readers of today typically read Frost not in these, but rather in new editions that often are published hastily and devoid of illustrations. (right: Appletree and Grindstone, 1923 (L253), Tailpiece from New Hampshire by Robert Frost, Henry Holt & Co., Inc., New York, 1923, Woodblock print, 3 x 4 inches, Collection of Pat Algier, Courtesy of the Children of J. J. Lankes)
Lankes' side of the relationship is even more difficult to gauge. Of his formidable oeuvre of some 1,350 designs (produced over more than forty years), approximately 125 have clear Frost connections. In the majority of cases, these works were not occasioned by a specific publication. Rather, they were creations growing out of Lankes' interactions with Frost, his immediate physical world (he visited Frost in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, on at least four occasions), and his poetry.
How, one asks, does the public become aware of such works? What are the likeliest venues that offer accessibility? These are by no means easy questions to answer. That Lankes was accorded numerous exhibitions (many of them small affairs) is a matter of record. He was also represented by the prestigious E.Weyhe Gallery in New York City and was promoted by Carl Zigrosser, a print specialist at Weyhe's (later curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Yet there is evidence that some of Lankes' Frost-related subjects were created for private satisfaction and pleasure. For example, he apparently pulled only two proofs of the powerful South Shaftsbury Station (Abandoned) (L1192); these he kept in his personal collection. Today the likeliest place to find Lankcs' work is either in institutions (e.g. Dartmouth, Middlebury, The New York Public Library, etc.), or in private collections.
Robert Frost and J J. Lankes: A Shared Vision of America draws from two such private entities. Although one is stronger in Frost holdings, and the other in Lankes, they overlap in significant ways. Here, however, some of the rarest pieces in each are brought forth and shown in public for the first time.
Frost and Lankes placed a high value upon fine printing and illustration. Both frequently expressed pleasure at seeing their work issued in limited editions or other special printings. But more than that, they appreciated seeing their works appear together, as an analogue each to each. Frost even went so far as to suggest that they collaborate on a "little black and white book," which they discussed over many years. Because of the manner in which "way leads on to way," this project never materialized. But every time their respective works are joined, whether in print or in exhibition, something of the spirit of what they envisioned is realized.
The current exhibition represents the Frost-Lankes connection as no other single display has ever done. For here are the artifacts that relate, in its full breadth and specificity, one of the more colorful and aesthetically engaging chapters in American cultural history of the last hundred years
About the author
Welford Dunaway Taylor holds the James A. Bostwick Chair of English at The University of Richmond. He is author of numerous works on American literature and culture, the most recent volumes being Robert Frost and J. J, Lankes: Riders on Pegasus (1996); Southern Odyssey: Selected Writings by Sherwood Anderson (1997) (co-edited with Charles E. Modlin) and The Woodcut Art of J.J. Lankes (1999). In October 2000 he co-curated the exhibition Paul Maze (1887-1979): An Impressionist in England at the University of Richmond's Marsh Gallery. He served as both a consultant and a lender to Robert Frost and J. J. Lankes: A Shared Vision of America, an exhibition currently on display at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery.
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