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Focus on the Collection: Earth Cruiser by David E. Bernard

by Stephen Gleissner


If there is one word that summarizes the art and career of David E. Bernard, it is "breadth." This will be readily apparent to those who visit the Museum to view the exhibition titled From the Plains to the Palatine: The Prints of David E. Bernard (through March 20). The exhibition, which includes the print illustrated here, demonstrates the breadth of vision consistently seen in Bernard's life and work. That breadth is apparent in his education, subject matter, style, technique, and teaching.

Bernard's education included undergraduate study of art education, graphic design, and painting. After two years of work as a commercial artist and three years of military service during World War II, he undertook graduate work in printmaking, sculpture, and art history. Throughout his life he continued his education by traveling. Though a Kansas resident from 1949 until 1995 (when he retired to Florida, where he and his wife still reside), he regularly explored lands near and far, including: Mexico, Central America, Greece, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, England, and The Netherlands. The print titled Vision (color intaglio, 1969), which depicts the interior of the Colosseum, demonstrates that Rome was a city of particular fascination for him (thus the title of the exhibition, for the Palatine is the most central of the seven hills of Rome; the Colosseum is situated between it and the Esquiline hill).

Breadth also applies to the range of his subjects, which extends from meditations on ancient civilizations via their architectural remains to pastoral representations of the Kansas landscape (such as the color woodcut titled Chisholm Creek Farm of 1989). He also engaged in a dialogue with the history of art through his prints on religious themes, which often depart from past masters, such as Rembrandt. Yet he was also engaged in contemporary social issues, as is seen in his prints that are critical of some dominant ideologies, militarism in particular.

Bernard's style is also remarkably broad. Many artists feel a need, whether for marketing purposes or concern for integrity of expression, to work in a relatively defined and identifiable style. Bernard's style, however, ranges from an apparently straightforward realism that encourages narrative to non-figurative abstraction. In Earth Cruiser, illustrated here, separate agricultural implements-tractor seat, plough, and disc-are whimsically joined into a fantasy farm machine. Ahead of it is an image that seems to combine a steering wheel and a gear. Is the wheel/gear image suggestive of the sun? Do the cogs of the gear suggest rays of sun warming the landscape? The artist allows us to play with the associations to which his images give rise. Earth Cruiser is a wonderful manifestation of why Bernard wanted to become an artist: "For the fun of it."

Regarding printmaking technique, Bernard was a master of the established processes and a pioneer of new ones. He was particularly involved in the development of the collagraph, which usually consists of a cardboard printing plate onto which are fixed various materials, often paper or fabric. Glue or gesso may be added for textural refinement. The blotchy, modeled texture of the colored inks in Earth Cruiser is a result of the application of glue to the printing plate. When asked if he favored one printing technique over another, he replied, "well, I've become sort of catholic in my tastes . . . I like them all . . . intaglio was my favorite medium at first and I still think it's the richest and most versatile, but I've been enjoying doing woodcuts for a change-it's a more direct process."

Even Bernard's teaching was marked by breadth, for he was open to the diverse ideas, talents, and goals of his many students at Wichita State University, where he taught from 1949 until 1983. The number of artists whose visions, techniques, and careers were nurtured by Bernard is a testament to his tolerance, teaching skills, and dedication. In the catalogue of the exhibition of Bernard's prints and sculptures held at the Art Museum in 1983, the painter James G. Davis wrote, "In a very formative, intense period of my life as an art student, David Bernard was a catalyst for me. . . He made his sincerely felt art accessible through teaching printmaking with a master's sensibility." Many former students, who, like Davis, have risen to well-deserved prominence in the American art world, would have similar words for their teacher and colleague-one who contributed much to the artistic culture of Wichita. (right: David E. Bernard, Earth Cruiser, color collagraph on paper, 1977. WAM, The David E. and Vivian L. Bernard Print Collection, 1994.37)


About the author:

Stephen Gleissner is Chief Curator, Wichita Art Museum.

RL editor's note:

The Graphic Work of David E. Bernard, a retrospective featuring approximately 40 prints including woodcuts, etchings and lithographs, is being exhibited at the Wichita Art Museum January 16, 2005 through March 20, 2005

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Ashle Stratton, Public Relations Coordinator, Wichita Art Museum, for her help in obtaining and forwarding the above text.

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