Transcending culture, spoken language, and time, all visual artists command a common visual vocabulary. Though universal, this visual language breaks into many dialects as artists evolve means of communicating that becomes their voice. Some common voices coalesce to become movements or schools; others resist any shared identity with other artists; some even create in multiple ways, challenging art critics and historians to define an understanding of their path. Though we enjoy recognizing an artist’s work for its stylistic consistency, placing the artist in too small a frame prevents us from knowing them fully, especially when they, as in this last example, step outside their visual dialect, and speak the language of art in ways we do not expect.
When our expectations cause us to turn away, the loss is ours, because restricting our reception of an artist’s voice to our personal preconceptions, deters us from walking another avenue into the multi-jeweled clockwork of the artist as a person. When we permit our expectations to remain at bay, our experience with art can surprisingly enrich us. One such encounter occurred for me during the multi-year preparation of our current World War I exhibition. The artist is one many of us – artist and scientist alike – studied in our youth, perhaps without ever knowing his name. He is a primary contributing illustrator to early editions of Gray’s Anatomy, A. Kirkpatrick Maxwell.
Illustrators, as a whole, are rarely household names. Anatomic illustrators even less, because their focus eschews personal expression in deference to fostering a deeper physical understanding of the subject. Many artists will do illustration – Andy Warhol is a prime example – but only as a means to crossing over to an “art for art’s sake” relationship with the art world. Few, however, remain illustrators for life while at the same time possessing the skill and purpose to speak authoritatively in another visual voice.
Born the son of a printer in Annan, Scotland, A. Kirkpatrick Maxwell benefited from a father who recognized his son’s acuity in drawing. After moving to Glasgow in the 1890’s, the elder Mr. Maxwell found his son apprenticeship with a Glasgow lithographer and encouraged him to enroll in evening classes at the City School of Art where Maxwell’s illustrative abilities flourished. Introduced by a friend to Dr. Bles, a Zoologist at the University of Glasgow, Maxwell accepted an offer to illustrate the Doctor’s forthcoming book. When the text received acclaim for the veracity of its illustrations, Maxwell’s voice as a scientific illustrator blossomed.
The outbreak of World War I, and the descent into trench warfare, produced casualties of a kind and number in hitherto unheard proportions. In 1915, Colonel Sir George Makens, RAMC, requested Maxwell’s presence in France to make surgical illustrations of the many different battle wounds doctors were encountering in triage. Maxwell arrived just as the first gas related casualties arrived from the second battle of Ypres. Maxwell’s initial drawings came to the attention of Colonel T. R. Elliot, who commissioned Maxwell as a Sergeant in the RAMC, and had him stationed with the Medical Research Council’s 13th General Hospital in the Casino at Boulogne. Maxwell worked throughout the remainder of war, drawing over 1000 accurate pictures of post-mortem war wounds, including color drawings of the effects of gas, trench foot, gangrene, and shrapnel related injuries. His illustrations became crucial to medical training over the course of the war, with many of his drawings published in the British Journal of Medicine. Upon the close of hostilities, Maxwell returned to civilian life and resumed his career.
The illustrations Maxwell drew during the war years are anatomically accurate, sometimes to the point of tears from those who suddenly come upon them. I cannot imagine anyone being capable of consistently and dispassionately rendering the suffering of others, even with the knowledge of the importance of the work, but this is what Maxwell accomplished. One wonders if the sheer madness of what he saw required some periodic form of aesthetic release, because artists do speak through their art. I am aware of nothing published, but the painting Roughing It, on loan to the Crisp Visual Art Center where I serve as curator, offers some indication. Though aware of Maxwell’s illustrations before seeing this work, my expectations did not prepare me for the honesty it conveys.
Roughing It depicts a couple of travelers sitting round a fire in an open-air campsite, high above a distant valley floor. Painted sometime after World War I, Roughing It has an atmospheric delicacy worthy of Corot. And, it is Corot we see, quoted in the peach, pink and pale blue sky tossed behind the high branches of the trees holding the frame on the right side of the painting, dark matter silhouetted against a breaking sky. There has been a rainstorm; a steely gray cloud, toward the high left corner, recedes in a sweep of wispy finality, opening the way for a brilliant white-yellow sun to show its face through the rain soaked air before dropping behind the back of the distant mountains.
We stand on a ledge several meters above a deep rutted and muddy road, where puddles large enough to fill the expanse of the bed, grab whatever sun they can and give it back in silvery play as if to say, “We too are light.” The road, emerging from the deep umber darkness to the lower right, follows the scoop of the hillside as it rises up to the left before turning back and aiming for the center of the canvas. Within the cup of the road are our travelers, tent pitched up against the side of a flatbed pull cart, they have a small fire started to warm them through the coming night.
The trees to the right stand on a rise overlooking the valley and are comprised of three distinct sections. The right two sections are full and verdant; the left appears damaged, its sparse leaves following the lean of its direction as it yearns toward the setting sun. Flowers grow below the outcropping of trees. Though the light diminish their brilliance, their scattered dusty-pink presence provides a counterpoint to the orange of the traveler’s fire. Between these, far off in the valley below, lay a meandering stream of silver, going this way and that as it slowly curls through the rising mist; a symphony of gray possibility.
Whether depicting holiday hikers caught in a rainstorm or roaming travelers accustomed to the solitude of the natural world, the creation of such an image may have been a means of cathartic relief to Maxwell – perhaps, and most importantly, because he was creating in a language with the capacity to allow a deeper resonance of the heart. Though he continued his lifework as a medical illustrator, eventually even returning to serve his country in the same capacity during World War II, Maxwell, like all artists, undoubtedly knew the language of art as capable of so much more than one could ever explore in a lifetime. He gave monumental service to humanity through his illustrative work and, great as it is, I find it, indeed, humbling he should also seek to provide us access to the poetry of his healing.
The painting Roughing It, by A. Kirkpatrick Maxwell, is currently on view in the Deer-Zink Gallery of the Crisp Visual Art Center, Culver Academies, Culver, Indiana through July, 2019.