I came across Horace Pippin this week while I was looking for a picture to go with a talk. Since I found the original picture, I’ve really been loving his work. Here are a few examples…
Pippin was an African-American painter, born in Pennsylvania in 1888. He went to a racially-segregated school until he left at 15. In 1917 he came to Europe to fight in WWI, where he was shot in the arm by a sniper – he lost most of the use of it for the rest of his life. After the war he took up painting, partly to exercise his wounded arm, and partly to work through his memories of the war. Apparently it took him 3 years to finish his first picture, guiding his injured right arm with his left hand.
Pippin, who was self-taught as an artist, painted in a “naive” style. It’s almost childlike, with flat colours and little perspective. It reminds me of Gauguin’s primitive style of painting. But whereas Gauguin intentionally rejected artistic convention (as part of a bigger rejection of European values), Pippin never learnt them. I think it means his painting has an innocent kind of honesty and simplicity. But the innocence of his painting belies the harsh reality of some of his subject matter. Whether it’s the horror of the WWI trenches or the daily indignity of segregation.
This is the most forthright of his paintings that I’ve seen, Mr Prejudice (1943). In the middle of the painting is a huge V, a symbol of victory in the struggle against discrimination. On the right side of the painting there are a collection of white men in uniform – positions of responsibility and value to society. On the left are a collection of black faces, wearing the same uniforms. One of them appears to be Pippin himself, wearing his WWI uniform, his injured right arm hanging uselessly by his side (perhaps as a symbol of the sacrifice Black soldiers made for their country). Black Americans are part of the backbone of American society, just like white Americans. Over each group looms a symbol of the ongoing struggle – on one side, a black Statue of Liberty, on the other, a masked Ku Klux Klan member and a man clutching a noose. A representative of each group holds out a hand in a gesture of friendship and reconciliation. But their hands never meet – they are divided as an angry-faced man, Mr Prejudice, hammers a wedge between them and splits the V in half. Pippin risked his life, and lost the use of his arm, for the his country, but he lived in an America where he was treated as a second-class citizen. The struggle would never be over while prejudice ruled.
This was the picture I used in my talk. The talk was on John 4, the woman at the well. It’s a powerful story, as Jesus cuts across all kinds of divisions to reach out to this woman. She’s a woman, he’s a man, and Jewish men didn’t chat to women in the street. He’s a respected religious teacher, she’s a woman with a dubious reputation, 5 husbands behind her and living with another man. She’s a Samaritan, and he’s a Jew – the racial divide between them was centuries deep. As a Samaritan she was hated by Jews, but she probably wasn’t treated much better by her neighbours or the men in her life either. Jesus cuts through all of that and gives her back her dignity. He quenches her thirst for relationship by offering her a relationship with God.
I think the story of the woman at the well strikes a chord with all of us, and I think that’s because we can all identify with her. We’ve all felt like an outsider at one time or another, maybe because of things that were our fault, maybe because of things that weren’t. And it was all too familiar to Pippin, an African-American living through the first half of the 20th century. So it’s unsurprising that he chose to paint this scene. The woman is hesitant as she approaches Jesus, but he is relaxed. And as they meet they are brightly lit against the dark backdrop of their surroundings, maybe reflecting the hope and life that she finds as she encounters Jesus.
“Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.'”