Art: Fraktur: The colorful legacy of Pennsylvania's Germans

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Broadside of Adam and Eve Decoration attributed to the Pseudo-Otto Artist. Probably York County, c. 1800, part of an exhibit at the Art Museum. Frakturs, named for the "broken" lettering, were often cherished family documents.

One reason that fraktur - the highly illuminated documents and texts made by Pennsylvania Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries - remain so colorful today is that they were hardly ever looked at. As soon as these baptismal certificates, religious texts, school awards, and other items were made, they were immediately tucked into family Bibles and dark drawers, treasured but rarely exposed.

Right now, fraktur is getting major exposure, with shows at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Winterthur Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is joyous, sometimes whimsical, sometimes visionary, frequently funny. Though it was named more than a century ago for the "broken" style of lettering it uses (Fraktur, in German), its imagery and overall visual design are the reasons to look at it, especially if you don't read German and aren't interested in Pennsylvania genealogy.

Germans in Pennsylvania may have been the first immigrant group considered to pose a threat to the English-speaking culture of the colonies. Benjamin Franklin worried about it. At the time of the American Revolution, a third of Philadelphians were German-speaking, about as many as those who were of English descent, and in many places outside the city, German predominated. The Germans were much more visually oriented than their English neighbors, so they provide a rare picture of early America.

Still, when I heard that there would be three exhibitions highlighting fraktur, I have to confess that this sounded like at least two too many. Now that I have seen them all, along with yet a fourth show at the Free Library on modern responses to fraktur, it still seems like too many. But all of them opened my eyes to a culture and a way of seeing and being that is often forgotten, even though it continues to shape the way Pennsylvanians live today.

All the shows raise questions about how we look at images and objects from the past. Are we trying to understand a time and culture different from our own? Or are we on the hunt for masterpieces, works of art that can stand among the best from other ages and places?

Each of the shows answers the question in different ways. The Free Library, with the oldest collection, has long offered many of these documents as primary sources. (It has a superb online database for the collection at http://libwww.freelibrary.org/fraktur/index.cfm.)

Perhaps because record-keeping was haphazard in colonial America, these items contain a wealth of information about families and institutions of the era.

The Winterthur exhibition shows fraktur as one manifestation of the Pennsylvania Germans' love for decoration. It seems as if they covered every surface available to them, up to and including the sides of barns. The show includes a chest, painted with camels, that curator Lisa Minardi, who was involved with all three exhibitions, says is the first documented example of a fraktur artist's doing other kinds of decoration. The show also features a wonderful flowerpot that shows a striped cat - seen in relief from above - that is about to spring on a bird, shown in profile. What a wonderfully odd way of seeing.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose exhibition is organized around the promised gift of the Joan and Victor Johnson collection, concentrates on individual artists, some known by real names and others by names like the Tall Soldiers Artist that have been assigned by scholars. Artists are grouped together because they are known to have been associated with each other, or because they have stylistic affinities. Such is the work required to usher the schoolmasters and others who made fraktur as a part-time avocation into the pantheon of art.

The library's show, open for limited hours in the third-floor rare-books gallery, is small and intimate, with works of very high quality. The Winterthur show provides a good general overview of Pennsylvania German culture as a whole and is probably the most useful of the three for those with limited knowledge of the subject. Joan and Victor Johnson, who amassed the works in the Art Museum's very large show, began as casual collectors and became connoisseurs. The show invites us to do the same.

One thing that all three demonstrate is that fraktur isn't all alike. While it is true that there are hearts and flowers - especially tulips - everywhere, there are tremendous differences in style and approach. The Art Museum's exhibition makes this clear by grouping several very different depictions of Adam and Eve, with tree and serpent, at its entrance. In one, the rosy-cheeked first humans appear to be wearing some kind of long underwear, or perhaps chain mail. In another, their bodies seem to have red, snake-shaped blotches all over. Few show much understanding of human anatomy, but none is idealized either. They could be the people from down the road.

There is a kind of haplessness to the people in these scenes that makes them funny and endearing. Even Jesus, preaching to his disciples in a work made in Lehigh County between 1810 and 1820, has a slightly dopey grin, as if he's hoping for the best but fearing the worst. His disciples, a bunch of square-jawed fellows, might be a lacrosse team.

Jesus stands on a pedestal, and two others on either side support columns crowned with great vases of tulips. Pudgy green- and yellow-winged angels, seemingly on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction, look down from the sky, along with quizzical sun and diffident moon. This work, by Durs Rudy Sr. or Durs Rudy Jr., is considered one of the masterpieces of the Free Library's collection, and even though it makes me smile, it is quite moving. It epitomizes one of the best things about the fraktur - deep, sincere humility. The message that comes through so many of these works is that the Earth and its plants and animals are a great blessing, but being a person is a tenuous, sometimes ridiculous endeavor.

 


Art: FRAKTUR ALL AROUND

Quill & Brush

When and Where: Through July 18

at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Information: 215-686-5322 or http://libwww.freelibrary.org/

frakturframing/exhibitions.cfm.

A Colorful Folk

When and Where: Through

Jan. 3 at Winterthur.

Information: 800-448-3883

or winterthur.org.

Drawn With Spirit

When and Where: Through April 26

at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Information: 215-763-8100

or philamuseum.org.


tom@thomashine.com.