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 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2016

Trump’s People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Long Rescue

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Television

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Improbability Party

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Helen Ouyang on the cost of crowd-sourcing drugs, Paul Wood on Trump's supporters, Walter Kirn on political predictions, Sonia Faleiro on a man's search for his kidnapped children, and Rivka Galchen on The People v. O. J. Simpson.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Photograph (detail) © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Article
Trump’s People·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"All our friends are saying, load up with plenty of ammunition, because after the stores don’t have no food they’re gonna be hitting houses. They’re going to take over America, put their flag on the Capitol.” “Who?” I asked. “ISIS. Oh yeah.”
Photograph by Mark Abramson for Harper's Magazine (detail)
Article
The Long Rescue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

He made them groom and feed the half-dozen horses used to transport the raw bricks to the furnace. Like the horses, the children were beaten with whips.
Photograph (detail) © Narendra Shrestha/EPA/Newscom
Article
The Old Man·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Illustration (detail) by Jen Renninger
Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With its lens shifting from the courtroom to the newsroom to people’s back yards, the series evokes the way in which, for a brief, delusory moment, the O. J. verdict seemed to deliver justice for all black men.
Still from The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story © FX Networks

Amount an auditor estimated last year that Oregon could save each year by feeding prisoners less food:

$62,000

Kentucky is the saddest state.

An Italian economist was questioned on suspicion of terrorism after a fellow passenger on an American Airlines flight witnessed him writing differential equations on a pad of paper.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today