Commentary — July 6, 2012, 2:46 pm

Kara Walker’s Works from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War

walker-lores
Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta. Courtesy of Kara Walker and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
 

The July 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine features a portfolio of images by New York artist Kara Walker from her series Works from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). The series, which was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art this spring, consists of fifteen lithographs and screenprints created using enlargements of woodcut prints from the titular book. Featured in the magazine portfolio are four images, all named after their source images’ captions: Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta, Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, Occupation of Alexandria, and Pack-Mules in the Mountains.

First published in 1866, the lavishly subtitled Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War: Contemporary Accounts and Illustrations from the Greatest Magazine of the Time, with 1000 scenes maps, plans and portraits comprises 836 large-scale pages. The anthology’s editors, Alfred H. Guernsey (Harper’s Magazine editor from 1856 to 1869) and Henry Mills Alden (editor from 1869 to 1919), described their aims in its preface:

We have undertaken to write the History of the Great Conspiracy which finally culminated in the Great Rebellion of the United States. Our task was commenced during the agony of the great struggle, when no man could foretell its issue. We purposed at the outset to narrate events just as they occurred; to speak of living men as impartially as though they were dead; to praise no man unduly because he strove for the right, to malign no man because he strove for the wrong; to anticipate, as far as we might, the sure verdict of after ages upon events.

packmules290
As Walker shows, the verdict of after ages remains unsettled. Her series imposes the solid black silhouettes of African-American faces and figures over some of the black-and-white woodcuts chosen by Guernsey and Alden to accompany the anthology’s text. Walker, who lived and studied in Atlanta in the Nineties, is widely known for this silhouetting technique, but this is the first time she has set it so directly against the historical record. “These prints,” she says, “are the landscapes that I imagine exist in the back of my somewhat more austere wall pieces.” She explains that her aim was to suggest perspectives left out of the record—and indeed, her shadows seem to reflect upon, react to, even alter the events Harper’s was attempting to depict “just as they occurred” a half-century ago. Walker’s juxtaposition of shadowy, often blatantly stereotypical features of African-American figures with precise, detailed prints portrays anew the racial history of the South, and reflects, in its way, on contemporary America.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Yumna Mohamed:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2015

Abolish High School

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beat Reporter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going It Alone

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rotten Ice

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Life After Guantánamo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Joke

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
Photograph by the author
Article
Rotten Ice·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, ‘Imaqa.’ Maybe.”
Photograph © Kari Medig
Article
Life After Guantánamo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’ve seen the hell and I’m still in the beginning of my life.”
Illustration by Caroline Gamon
Article
Going It Alone·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness.”
Photograph by Richard Misrach
Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Acreage of a Christian nudist colony under development in Florida:

240

Florida’s wildlife officials decided to remove the manatee, which has a mild taste that readily adapts to recipes for beef, from the state’s endangered-species list.

A 64-year-old mother and her 44-year-old son were arrested for running a gang that stole more than $100,000 worth of toothbrushes from Publix, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS stores in Florida.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today