After we had spent the first part of the semester reading Moby-Dick and studying Elizabeth Schultz's text and the artists who were inspired by the novel, we had an opportunity to see the work live. Our trip to Evanston was a great educational and social experience. We saw many of the works that we had been studying in class. Each of us gave a short presentation on the piece of art that we had specific interest in. I chose Benton Spruance's series and paid particular attention to his Samuel Enderby and Epilogue.
Back in the classrom, we were responsible for a paper concerning the artist we discussed in the gallery. Each of us took turns presenting our papers in class and I was impressed with the work and insights of my classmates. Most of us chose different artists and all of us decided to focus on different works. I've decided to add my Spruance paper to my homepage. So read until your heart is content.
Spruance and His Passion of Ahab
The 1940s and 1950s witnessed an explosion in the popularization of Moby-Dick for general readers through John Huston's movie, comic books, children's books, and the paintings and sculptures of the abstract expressionists. Benton Spruance was one of the first artists who created a series of prints reexamining the the novel's narratives. He began work in 1965 on a set of prints that are generally regarded as his most masterful works. These are the twenty-six lithographs based on his reading of Moby-Dick , themes from which recur often in prints made during the last two decades of his life. His life as an artist began in 1928 after he had won a traveling scholarship that had landed him in Paris. In Paris he tried his hand at lithography for the first time. Lithography, discovered in 1796, is a process whereby a drawing is made with liquid lithographic ink or lithographic crayon on stone or on zinc or aluminium plates. The stone or plate is then given a coating of gum etch. Printing is done by damping the surface of the stone or plate, and passing an inked roller over the stone or plate. A sheet of paper is then laid in position on the stone or plate and pulled through the press. On lifting the paper the inked portions are found to have adhered to the paper and show a good clear print (Vicary, p. 10). Although the preferred medium in printmaking was etching during that time, Spruance continued to make lithographs and to concentrate on experiments in methods and techniques.
His mythic vision stemmed from two sources: autobiographical experience and literature. He embraced a theme that many young artists find embarassing today: the human condition. He believed that high moral standards were worthyand attainable; that individual decency, participation, and idealism do matter in living; and that these qualities can improve the world even just a little (Looney, p. 10).
Spruance's art closely reflects his own life. His prints, taken in chronological sequence, constitute a unique record of his times, his world, and his experience. During the 1930s, Spruance focused on the diverse fabric of American life and the relationships between men and women. He wrote that this time was his search for a personal expression of an American art form (Looney, p. 6). Because of the war and its aftermath, the forties was a period of transition in Spruance's work. His themes were concerned with myth and religion.
Beginning about 1950, he essentially embraced literature as a theme. Spruance held great admiration for William Blake, yet the major efforts of the last three years of his life were inspired by Herman Melville's Moby-Dick . His series of twenty-six prints called The Passion of Ahab was based on his own passion for the novel. This series calls attention to humankind's anguished struggle against impossible odds--social, natural, and supernatural. Spruance focused on explicit moral and social implications in his mythic interpretation of Moby-Dick . He called Moby-Dick a great American myth (Looney, p. 7).
Throughout his series he emphasizes the whale, Ishmael, and Ahab. Despite the specificity his lithographs acquire through their titles and association with particular passages from Moby-Dick , their movement toward abstraction, in conjunction with the lithographic process itself and the layering of colors, reinforces Ahab's contention that all visible objects, mam, are but as pasteboards masks. Through his manipulation of form, color, gesture, and space, Spruance's vision of suffering and isolated humanity struggling to grasp the ungraspable is intensified from one picture to the next.
Lawrence Thompson wrote the text for an offset edition of the series of twenty-six lithographs. In his text he said that "Benton Spruance makes no attempt to illustrate Melville's epic, but instead chooses to interpret a selected sequence of images and actions which are of central importance in Melville's narrative. Spruance himself was uncomfortable verbalizing his thoughts about the prints, and felt that this "Passion of Ahab...has been a creative experience of images--not words" (Looney, p. 7).
Spruance divides his twenty-six lithographs into a significant five-part progression. The first introduces certain of Melville's major themes; the second deals with images, characters, and events of Ahab's quest of the white whale; the third concentrates on images endowed with metaphysically symbolic overtones of meaning; the fourth, with Ahab's compelling emotion, suffering, and agony; and the last with important images from the latter portion of Melville's narrative (Looney, p. 7).
Two prints that I found particularly interesting were The Samuel Enderby and Epilogue . Both prints represent significant passages from the novel. Spruance's quotations from the novel, including "Hast seen the White Whale?" keep Ahab before the viewer. In Samuel Enderby, Ahab is shown suspended in whaling tackle, crossing his boneleg with Captain Bommer's whalebone arm. According to Schultz, these crossed limbs, which form the visual focus for the print, are crossed weapons, suggesting a violent difference in their points of view. She further points out that Ahab's body is locked into the print not only by the tackle to which he clings but also by the weight of Boomer's mallet-shaped arm upon his leg. By replicating the rectilinearity of the paper with vertical and horizontal bands, Spruance reinforces the sense of enclosure around Ahab. This enclosure in a block of gray, encloses him in a common human destiny (Schultz, p.200).
Personally, when I looked at the print, I didn't focus on the passion of Ahab, but rather I was intrigued by the representation of the scene from the novel. Imagining the sound that those bones must have made, sends chills up my spine. Bonechilling scenes (no pun intended), like this one, are some of the pieces of the novel that make Moby-Dick so exceptional.
The final print of Benton Spruance's series is my favorite one. His representation of the final scene is incredible. To me, it reminds us of our own mortality. Schultz's analysis of the print introduced insights that I hadn't thought about. She notices and gives relevance to the black globe that presides over Ishmael's survival and the precarious world in which he lives. The edges of this world seem uncertain (Schultz, p. 203). Spruance buoys Ishmael in amorphous space with an incomplete black line partially surrounding him. Bubbles stipple the water's surface; colors--gray, yellow, green--disintegrate around him. Yet he holds on to Queequeg's very black and solid coffin for dear life as one would grasp his beloved friend. Spruance's use of the color green may represent Ishmael's quest for land. Ishmael's hands are holding the coffin in an almost prayerful way, suggesting his search for redemption from the evil sea.
To me, an integral part of the Epilogue was the entrance of the Rachel. Ishmael called himself another orphan, thus verifying his existence. It would seem that Spruance or at least one other artist would have tried to portray such a moving scene.
In this final print, Spruance leaves out the central character of his series and returns the viewer to a universe where the individual struggles to survive among incomprehensible signs. Spruance's own passion was to make visible such consciousness. This existential element of Spruance's work, inspired by Melville, gives us a deeper understanding of the novel's significance.
As a class, we decided to change the course of the rest of our time together. We decided to try to put together our own artwork inspired by our reading of Moby-Dick , and besides that, we went along with Nate's idea of putting together a homepage. I guess we really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. A couple of weeks were spent in this lovely computerlab where many of us learned gobs of computer lingo that we never thought we would ever understand. Somehow, most of us made it through and you can see the result.
I'm sure you are very interested to know how our art projects turned out from a class that had only two art majors. We were very lucky, and were able to have gallery space in our Fine Arts building on campus. Our show had a variety of different types of art ranging from paintings to music inspired by Moby-Dick. My piece was a glass mosaic framed in a homemade wood border. I really liked working with all the different colored glass pieces, but scoring them and cutting them was a bit tedious. The glass had a mind of its own and broke in ways that I had not imagined. Almost each piece of glass had a mate that shared its similar shape. This led me to arrange many of the pieces as "couples" and inspired the title of the piece, "The Marriage of Water and Meditation." Here is a picture of my mosaic.
I hope you enjoyed my homepage and the rest of the moby crew's pages, check back to see more about our group's latest creations after our exhibit at Rockford State University in April. Until then, you can e-mail me Ishmael at Hixson@nku.edu.
The photo of Lindsay and the Spruance print was taken at the Mary Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University, Spring 1996.