December 23, 2014

Nativity 3

        Today’s nativity scenes are from the twentieth century, and demonstrate the idea of revisiting a theme repeatedly.  I would tend to think, “I’ve done a nativity scene.  What’s the point in doing another?  I don’t have any new ideas about how to show it.”  But many artists do have new ideas about showing the same subject.  Besides, if they’re designing a Christmas card every year, as many artists have done, they have an impetus to come up with new ways to  depict the same scene.  So today I have three pieces each from two largely contemporaneous artists, each of whom did many nativity scenes over the years.
        Eric Gill (England, 1882-1940) is first, beginning with a depiction that includes only the Holy Family and a midwife.  Joseph looks somewhat aloof, on the edge with his arms crossed, and the star and the people’s skin make the only areas of white larger than a scratch.  Second is a madonna and child rather than a stable scene, but I include it because I’m tickled by the fact that Mary’s knitting.  In fact, though, she seems more intent on her knitting than on the angel, or even than the baby, who seems to reach up to her for attention he isn’t getting.  I confess to not being much of a fan of Gill’s people’s expressions.  So how about a nativity in silhouette, which I think would make a lovely Christmas card.  I’m not sure of the identity of the animal in the lower right, but I like the bird coming in from the top.  I also like how the baby is reaching out to the animals.  No stiff, cold, overly-stylized expressions to be seen.  Gill has designed this like a paper cutting, with all the black areas attached so that there are no loose pieces.  Of course, as a block print it would have been fine for there to be islands of black, so it’s an interesting design choice.
        Gwen Raverat (about whom you can read more in an earlier post) shows her people with much more tenderness.  This first is simple, but only about an inch and a half tall, which means that the carving is really very detailed.  Actually, these three pieces are all quite small.  The second is my favorite.  Raverat is great with light, and I love the way the baby is the light source, making his parents’ robes and faces glow.  (Speaking of robes, note that these people are no longer dressed in contemporary fashion, but in our conception of historically accurate clothing.)   And finally, a lovely mother and child.  They may have haloes, and this baby is being set gently in a manger, but still, it depicts that universal 
element of the Christmas story: the miracle of a newborn baby and the love between parent and infant.

[Pictures: Nativity with Midwife, wood engraving by Eric Gill, 1913;
Madonna and Child with Angel, wood engraving by Gill, 1916;
Animals All, wood engraving by Gill, 1916 (Images from the Tate);
The Manger, wood engraving by Gwen Raverat, 1912;
The Nativity, wood engraving by Raverat, 1916;
The Manger 1, wood engraving by Raverat, 1932 (Images from The Raverat Archive).]

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