June 9, 2015

Pullinger's Scenes

        The block I began carving at my show this past weekend is an old grist mill, so when I saw Herbert Pullinger’s wood engraving of a mill this morning, I thought it was clearly the right time to feature his work.  Actually, he’s got a number of prints of mills, and a few other industrial scenes, plus plenty of other landscapes with more nature, domestic architecture, or small town streets.  I like his work a lot.  In fact, I loved so many of his pieces that I’ve had a terrible time selecting just a few for this post.  Such a horrible problem to have so many beautiful things to share!
        Pullinger (U.S. 1878-1961) is one of those many artists obscure enough that I can’t find much information about him, yet he’s clearly unworthy of obscurity.  Like many artists during the 20s and 30s, Pullinger tried to show everyday scenes in cities and towns.  He depicted industry and agriculture, ordinary people out strolling or driving their carts…  He had quite a long career as a printmaker, but his general style and vibe seems to have stayed pretty stable across the decades.  His wood engravings have a lovely balance of black and white, and I love that, despite the fineness of the detail, Pullinger’s work never looks like anything but carved wood.
        By ruthless culling, I’ve managed to get myself down to six favorites, representing some variety, but certainly not the full range of Pullinger’s America.  (He was based in Philadelphia, and doesn’t seem to have strayed very far in his printmaking career.)  I have to begin with the mill, of course, that being the one that first caught my eye.  This mill appears to be derelict, and I wonder whether it was a victim of the Great 
Depression.  The magic of wood block prints, of course, is that they have the power to reveal the beauty even in scenes that are potentially eyesores in real life.  This is especially true in the other industrial scenes I’ve included, Breaker and steel furnaces.  Admittedly in the first half of the 20th century many people viewed such industrial scenes as symbols of progress, but oh, those clouds of pollution!  Those smokestacks endlessly spewing, the torn up earth, the rivers choked away in the sprawl of sheds and foundries and furnaces!  And yet, isn’t it all beautiful in Pullinger’s scenes?  Straight lines against curves, tiny details against great bold strokes, black against white!
        As a little respite from that energy, why not admire a scene with much more nature: a peaceful bridge over a tree-lined river.  I wish I could figure out how to depict trees like this: just enough pattern to suggest all the varieties of texture, but never overworked.
        And finally, two houses, a farm house standing on a rutted dirt driveway, and a prosperous-looking house that must be in a town, with its sidewalk and lamppost.  You can see Pullinger’s skill again by comparing the trees in the two prints: the bare branches of late fall or early spring in one, and the lush embrace of summer in the other.  Both are peaceful, but the farmhouse seems almost a little sinister, while the other house is cheerful and welcoming.  (Or perhaps the farmhouse just needs to work on its curb appeal.)
        I’m quite smitten with Pullinger’s work, and pleased to be able to share my new discovery with you!

[Pictures: Omshot Wheel, wood engraving by Herbert Pullinger;
Henry Avenue Bridge, wood engraving by Pullinger;
Breaker - Shenandoah Valley, wood engraving by Pullinger;
Alan Wood Steel Co. Furnaces, woodcut by Pullinger, 1921;
Farm House, wood engraving by Pullinger;
Old Home, wood engraving by Pullinger, (All images from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts).]

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