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Horace Pippin: ‘I can never forget suffering’

Has any artist’s work been more profoundly shaped by the First World War than the African-American painter Horace Pippin’s, asks Matt Shinn.

Not only did Horace Pippin take the war as his subject, but the very way he painted was affected by the wounds he suffered in the trenches of France. But having re-learnt how to paint with a near-paralysed arm, he was able to overcome both his physical limitations and the racial discrimination he encountered, to become a major figure in the American art world of the Thirties and Forties.

From the trenches to Hollywood

The Great War, Pippin wrote, ‘brought out all the art in me.’ ‘I can never forget suffering, and I will never forget sunset [sunsets feature prominently in his work]. So I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.’

As part of the 369th US infantry regiment, also known as Harlem’s Hell Fighters, Pippin had fought in the trenches as part of an all-black unit led by white officers. But in 1918 his right shoulder and arm were shattered by machine gun bullets, and he had to endure many hours lying in a shell hole, under the body of a French soldier who had been shot trying to rescue him.

Pippin returned to the States in a bad way, both physically and psychologically. To regain strength in his damaged arm, and also to deal with the ‘blue spells’ that frequently overcame him, he taught himself to paint again, using his good left hand and his paralysed right one together. Painting mainly at night, he began to produce painstaking interpretations of what he had seen during the war. Starting with The End of the War: Starting Home (1931), during the following decade he was able to capture on canvas his nightmare vision of the Western Front, in works such as Shell Holes and Observation Balloon (1935), and In Dogfight Over Trenches (also 1935).

While he may have begun creating these images as a way of coming to terms with his experiences, their directness and intensity soon won him influential admirers in the American art world including the pioneering role played by his white dealer, Robert Carlen. As Pippin began to tackle other subjects in the last decade of his life, including scenes of African-American domestic life, as well as producing historical vignettes and pictures on religious themes, his work began to be taken seriously. Through the art collector and educator Albert C. Barnes, Pippin’s work gained a following among a number of Hollywood stars, including Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson. But it was Robert Carlen who played the catalytic role in his life and work.

Painter of no-man’s land

Now, Horace Pippin is widely seen as a significant figure in African-American art history. Many major American collections own at least one work by him. And yet until recently, his life and work have been relatively unexamined, not gaining the critical attention that they deserve.

 Aiming to put that right is Celeste-Marie Bernier, who is Professor of African American Studies at the University of Nottingham. With the help of an AHRC Fellowship, she has produced the first major critical study devoted to Pippin’s work. Entitled Suffering and Sunset: World War I in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin, it will be published in 2015. Celeste-Marie Bernier has also embarked on a series of public talks, in the US and UK, to bring Pippin’s work to a wider audience. And the publication of the book will take place at the same time as a major exhibition of Pippin’s work in Philadelphia, close to West Chester where he lived for the majority of his life- time.

Suffering and Sunset also breaks new ground in seeing Pippin’s paintings in the context of his writings: through four unpublished autobiographies, Pippin left behind four handwritten accounts of black soldiers in the First World War, three that were not illustrated and one that was accompanied by full colour sketches. On smudged, torn and yellowed pages, he recorded the nightmarish experience of soldiers on the Western Front, from the effects of rain and shells, to seeing the aftermath of a German plane being shot down. Despite their refusal to adhere to standardised conventions of grammar and syntax, Pippin's memoirs convey a vivid sense of what he went through: ‘the whole intir batel feel were hell,’ he writes at one point, ‘so it were no place for any houmen been to be.’

According to Celeste-Marie Bernier, his works are ‘alive with iridescent colour. But he’s also a story-teller. His work is about struggle and beauty, life and death. It’s also about memory: the memories of an individual and of a community. It’s hard-hitting. It’s anti-sentimental.’

‘Don't tell me how to paint,’ Pippin would say to his critics. ‘Pictures just come to my mind,’ he once said, ‘and I tell my heart to go ahead.’ Critics have even tended to treat him as something of a naïf, an outsider in the art world, untutored and instinctive. And yet Celeste-Marie Bernier argues that he was a self-made, self-consciously experimental artist as she shows that Pippin was far from being an artistic innocent: he had been a painter before the war, and his shift in painterly techniques was due to his having to re-learn how to paint, as a result of his war wounds. His intense use of colour, for example, comes partly from a self-reflexive understanding and active engagement with the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as well as from the inspiration provided by African American art-making traditions within his own family histories.

Celeste-Marie Bernier is also able to present Pippin in the context of many other African-American artists who, she says, were able to ‘paint their lives into existence.’ The likes of Edwin Harleston, Malvin Gray Johnson and William H. Johnson were all experimenting with ways of representing their experience of war, as black soldiers.

Ultimately, says Celeste-Marie Bernier, ‘there are two kinds of no-man’s land depicted in the work of Horace Pippin and other African-American artists of the time.’ There is the dystopian horror of the trenches. But there is also the no-man’s land that these artists came from and returned to – the early-twentieth-century America of segregation, discrimination and lynchlaw. 

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