Baskin was an expert draftsman. His drawings are full of manic energy with broad strokes and splashes of dark ink, and at the same time meticulously layered with perfectly placed crosshatching and minute detail. He claimed no natural drawing talent having painstakingly honed his skill through thousands of hours of “deliberate, slug-tempoed, knuckle-aching, face wrinkling effort.” Long assiduous hours with a live model helped him cultivate an innate sense for the human form. He said of himself,
“. . . my drawn figures are girdled in a continuous silhouette within which form-building and form-destroying lines and blots and dots and smudges and flecks and dashes and fillips and specks and splashes disport, granting meaning and reality to the drawing: or so I profoundly hope.“
The works are not pretty, they do not lure with a cosmetic placidity. One is shaken by their probity, how they communicate without a placating negotiation. You must see them on their own terms, but when you do, they resonate with a savage beauty that is inescapable, straightforward and brutally honest.
Baskin’s raptors were at the core of his oeuvre for over 60 years. It was his early drawings of crows that first inspired Ted Hughes to write the poems included in Crow, which for many has become the seminal book of English poetry published in the last century.
With their proud nobility, gluttonous beaks, and alluring plumage (barely concealing their death-delivering talons,) Baskin’s Raptors mimic our own struggle to exist as both the oppressed and the oppressor. He is drawn to the scavenger, nobly surviving by its wits (instinct and intellect), even if, sometimes, forced to prey on those weaker.
It is a classic Baskin conundrum: love of the heroic and the common, the ordinary man and the artistic genius. The tension in much of Baskin’s work lies in the interaction between these two poles.
Baskin’s relentless pursuit of his themes was so encompassing that to call a work “Baskin-like” conveys an unsentimental confrontation with mortality and political forces of the time. His vision is often a dark one, but it is the brilliance of our fight, our survival against the odds, our attempts at communication and understanding, that constitute the glory of humanity and exist, always, at the core of Baskin’s art.
Aristotle’s Politics and Poetics
Published in The Eaton Press’s 1979 collector’s edition of Aristotle’s classic text, these exquisite drawings were part of some 16 done for the project.
These three drawings were done for a portfolio commissioned by Editions Medicina Rara in 1972. This work is of historical moment and is unique in that it is the first anatomical portfolio by an artist of renown to be seriously published in the twentieth century. The portfolio contained 13 anatomical drawings, characteristic of Baskin’s style; distorted and aggrandized, unconcerned with scientific accuracy, but while our attention to the banality of our flesh, it urges us to transcend it. Of his works, Baskin said, “Man must rediscover man, harried and brutalized, distended and eviscerated, but noble withal, rich in intention, puissant in creative spur, and enduring in the posture of love.”
Anatomical illustrations and their assemblages from the Fabrica of Vesalius in 1543 through their dwindling output in the last half of the nineteenth century were essentially created and reproduced to serve as tools of learning and a reference resource in the development of diagnostic and therapeutic medical skills. Many of these works which have endured by virtue of their beauty, scholarly import, or artistic merits seem to have qualities which transcend the illustration of the human figure as a craft — important as craftsmanship may be per se. Some of these images seem even hundreds of years later to make a profound statement about man through the portrayal of his physicality. Often they permit a kind of hopeful insight into the elusive grandeur of men and women in spite of the brutal and unrelenting frustration of their vulnerable posture within an attacking social environment. The skillfully created anatomical atlases generated over a period of several centuries served a function rendered apparently unnecessary with the advent of photomechanical image-making facilities that could not only reflect the surface of the human figure but even penetrate it. Text attributable to Editions Medicina Rara, Ltd.
Thistles and Weeds
Baskin’s artistic gaze gravitated toward the marginalized. Cultures, races, religions, and even his individuals bore the brunt of oppression and exclusion. His images of overgrown gardens are no different. The ubiquitous thistle that can grow anywhere, seemingly out of solid rock, throws its seed as far as the wind can carry it. It is not always pretty, but it is a survivor. Much like his Raptors, the thistle is prickly and sharp, not to be held back, defying removal. A fitting metaphor for the human condition.
Much of Baskin’s work is intertwined with literature. The Gehenna Press published works by numerous poets and writers, both ancient and contemporary. Often the relationships would grow and they would collaborate numerous times as was the case with the British poet Ted Hughes. He did several of Shakespeare’s plays, was the first to publish Wilfred Owen’s poetry in this country, and brought to light nearly forgotten texts, often on themes of social justice and racial and gender equality.
“Collecting books and drawings is the only activity I know of that involves every one of the seven deadly sins, even sloth.”
— Leonard Baskin – 1963
Charles Brockden Brown was another writer almost lost to history that championed the rights of marginalized classes, having written early texts on issues of gender equality and the abolition of slavery. Alcuin: A Dialogue is one of the earliest American texts on the rights of women.
Of the book, Baskin wrote:
C. B. Brown, our first professional writer, whose gothic novels the printer had avidly read, had also written the first American book supporting the rights of women, never printed in its entirety until this edition. The discovery of his tests was by accident, in the memoirs of a rare book dealer [it is extraordinary how boring these memoirs of an exciting trade tend to be]. Under the guiding aegis of Sidney Kaplan the complete work was assembled. It was edited by Lee Edwards and was an innovative and contributive addition to the subject. A popular edition was issued based on the Gehenna book.
This ink drawing was reproduced and appears on the title page.
C.B. Brown (January 17, 1771 – February 22, 1810)
Charles Brockden Brown, an American novelist, historian, and editor of the Early National period, is generally regarded by scholars as the most important American novelist before James Fenimore Cooper. He is the most frequently studied and republished practitioner of the “early American novel,” or the US novel between 1789 and roughly 1820. Although Brown was not the first American novelist, as some early criticism claimed, the breadth and complexity of his achievement as a writer in multiple genres (novels, short stories, essays and periodical writings of every sort, poetry, historiography, reviews) makes him a crucial figure in US literature and culture of the 1790s and first decade of the 19th century, and a significant public intellectual in the wider Atlantic print culture and public sphere of the era of the French Revolution.
John Woolman (October 19, 1720 – October 7, 1772)
John Woolman was a North American merchant, tailor, journalist, and itinerant Quaker preacher, and an early abolitionist in the colonial era. Based in Mount Holly, New Jersey, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he traveled through frontier areas of British North America to preach Quaker beliefs, and advocate against slavery and the slave trade, cruelty to animals, economic injustices and 0ppression, and conscription. From 1755 during the French and Indian War, he urged tax resistance to deny support to the military. In 1772, Woolman traveled to England, where he urged Quakers to support abolition of slavery. His abolitionist tract, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes was published in 1754 and became an influential voice in the fight against slavery.
This ink drawing was reproduced and hand water colored in this Gehenna Press volume. Of the book, Baskin wrote:
The Woolman was the third and last of the Gehenna Tracts. It serves, as do its predecessors, in making available [especially as this text was popularly reprinted from our edition] works which are difficult to readily obtain. This was Gehenna’s second Woolman text; earlier it had issued a large broadside of a nightmare of Woolman’s entitled “The Fox and the Cat” the press’ editor rescued it from the obscurity of earlier Quaker journals
Jackie Leach Scully describes Baskin’s broadside in her book, Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives:
There is a woodblock print by Leonard Baskin of ‘John Woolman’s Dream of the Fox and the Cat’ which creates a vivid illustration of Woolman’s awareness of horrible injustice in the world. In the woodcut’s foreground is a vicious fox-cat with bared teeth and claws, and in the background is the figure of a hanged ‘old Negro man’ whose flesh was to be fed to the fox-cat. In Woolman’s narrative of the dream there is the further addition of a woman calmly drinking tea, who looks on from the position of privilege (as do perhaps the viewers of the woodcut and the readers of the Journal) unmoved by this violence against a fellow human being. Woolman writes that in the dream, ‘I stood silent all this time and was filled with extreme sorrow at so horrible an action and now began to lament bitterly. . . but none mourned with me.
Archibald MacLeish(May 7, 1892 – April 20, 1982)
Archibald MacLeish was an American poet, writer, and the Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944. He was the first to begin the process of naming what would become the US Poet Laureate.
He received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work. The first for poetry in 1933 for Conquistador. The second in 1953 for poetry for Collected Poems 1917-1952, and the third in 1959 for Drama for J.B, his modern retelling of the story of Job.
This play was written to commemorate the 1966 bicentennial of the town of Conway, Massachusetts, where MacLeish had lived since 1928. At this time he was the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College.
The story is focused on a young man who is from the town and has lived there all his life. Over the course of the story he talks to new people and he comes to realize he does not really know the town. He doesn’t know its history, the people, or any of the intangible things that make a place home. During a fair for the town’s 200th birthday, the young man is introduced to historical figures who helped develop Conway, and he ultimately gains a deeper understanding of what his hometown represents.
The Divine Comedy
Baskin did over 100 large scale ink drawings for Thomas Bergin’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s classic work. Grossman Publishers released an edition of 100 slip-cased copies of the three volume set. Most of the illustrations were done in a frenzy of creative willpower in the summer of 1968 at Baskin’s then home in Devon, England.
The Pomegranate was a symbol of Baskin’s Gehenna Press, often used as a pressmark on the colopon page. It features prominently in Greek mythology. In one myth, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken to live in the underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, went into mourning for the loss of her daughter and thus all green things began to die.. Zeus could not allow the entire Earth to die so he commanded Hades to return the girl. It was the rule of the Fates, however, that anyone who consumed food or drink in the underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Hades tricked Persephone into eating six pomegranate seeds before returning her so she was condemned to spend six months in the underworld every year. During these six months every year while Persephone sits in the underworld, her mother goes into mourning, bringing on winter and the change of the seasons. A fitting symbol given the name of Baskin’s press, Gehenna, which means hell, deriving from, and playing off the double meaning of “type” in the opening lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost “ And black Gehenna call’d, the Type of Hell.”
“Being Jewish confounds things. The people of the book are intelligently defined as a religion. I, a believing atheist, proudly declare my jewishness. It is to Yiddish that my spirit warms; to that heritage of persecution and sensual denial, that Yiddish so richly expresses. Not religion, but religious texts: not beliefs or superstition, fear or malignant custom, but the literacy, artistic, cultural and human relics of that religion.” —Leonard Baskin – May 27, 1990
Henry David Thoreau
The story of the Thoreau stamp’s introduction to the world has been told many times. One of the more colorful versions of the story appears in the July 21st,1967 issue of Time Magazine, and reads in part:
“Philately may seem a gentle avocation, but Postmaster General Larry O’Brien knows better. After he approved a 5-cent stamp to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, furious collectors complained that the Post Office Department was making the Walden Ponderer look like a thug, a Communist, a hippie, or ‘a beatnick suffering from withdrawal symptoms.’ Once fan even threatened civil disobedience. ‘If you bring a blown-up poster of this thing to Concord, Mass.,’ he wrote, ‘you better send along a contingent of the National Guard.’ Fortunately no one had to call out the troops last week when the Assistant Postmaster General Richard Murphy formally issued the stamp—bearing a rugged, brooding likeness of Thoreau by Artist Leonard Baskin—before a well-behaved crowd of 400 in Concord.”
The Thoreau stamp drew some withering comments. It was voted “Worst Stamp of the Year” by readers of Linn’s Stamp News. Henry Bugbee Kane, who had done a number of portraits of Thoreau in the 1940s and 1950s for various publications wrote to Walter Harding: “For my part, I could easily do without Baskin.” And one elderly lady in Concord was quoted as saying, with great disapproval in her voice: “This is the first stamp our government has issued where you are supposed to spit on both sides.”
But the stamp had its supporters, as well. The Thoreau Society Bulletin endorsed Baskin’s design, opining: “We happen to like the stamp and think that it admirably presents Thoreau’s strength of character and personality.” And, as the noted graphic design historian Steven Heller reports, the stamp was very popular among young people.
Cecelia Tichi, in her 2001 book Embodiment of a Nation, makes the observation that Baskin’s stamp “became a benchmark of divisiveness over who ‘owned’ Thoreau, the hippies or the straights, the counterculture communards or the traditionalist ‘huge audience among lovers of bird and bush,’ as Richard Ruland described them in 1968.” She (Tichi) points out that underground newspapers of the day, such as the East Village Other and the Los Angeles Free Press, printed large reproductions of the stamp in the pages of their respective papers, at the same time that various Thoreau societies were lodging protests against the stamp. But the mid-1960s would be the last period in which any group or constituency thought that it had a monopoly on Thoreau, or that it was the sole interpreter of Thoreau to the general public. In the next chapter of this book, we will see a de-centralization of sorts, in which anyone could “own” Thoreau, as it were, and interpret him (or use his image) with any of a host of intentions and messages in mind.
—Exerpted from Picturing Thoreau: Henry David Thoreau in American Visual Culture by Mark W. Sullivan ©Lexington Books
The Society Hills Towers Sculpture Project
The Society Hills Towers were designed by I.M. Pei as a landmark in Philadelphia’s urban renewal. The three sculptures, Baskin’s first major sculpture for an outdoor setting were done in 1966 as part of the Redevelopment Authority’s 1% program. It depicts a young man, standing, and a seated older man confronting a winged creature representing the future. According to Baskin, the mythical bird also signifies external reality “which is good and bad, promising, and ominous.” (adapted from Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin Bach)
Baskin did forty-eight drawings for this 1968 edition of Richmond Lattimore’s translation. The works were unwavering in their portrayal of the raw violence of the epic. He doesn’t gloss over the carnage or the grief, both of which play such an integral part of this epic tale of war, death, and honor.
Leonard Baskin was a true Renaissance man and an artist of international stature. Writer, maker of books, watercolorist, printmaker, Caldecott-honored children’s book illustrator, and sculptor, he imbued each field with his unique voice, pushing it into new territory while honoring its history.
As a maker of books, Baskin’s Gehenna Press set the standard against which all fine press books are measured. In 1992, the Library of Congress featured an exhibition of fifty years of Baskin’s book artistry. From elaborately illustrated collaborations with poet laureates such as Ted Hughes and Anthony Hecht, to the republishing of hard to find early anti-slavery tracts, Baskin has earned his reputation as the father of the fine art book in America.
As a printmaker, Baskins reinvented the monumental woodcut as fine art. From his 1952 Man-of-Peace to the haunting Holocaust imagery of the late 1990’s, he has uncompromisingly and unsentimentally confronted mortality and the political forces of our time.
As a watercolorist, Baskin’s many portraits of Jews, African –Americans, and Native-Americans, emphasized the brilliance of our fight, survival against the odds, and our attempts at communication and understanding that constitutes the glory of humanity and the core of Baskin’s art.
Baskin’s subjects ranged from biblical, classical and mythological scenes to delicate floral studies. His drawings, sculpture, watercolors, and prints are in the permanent collections of most of the world’s major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Vatican Museum, the Smithsonian Institute and the Tate Gallery in London. Among Baskin’s most prominent public commissions are large scale bronzes for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial, both in Washington D.C., and the Holocaust Memorial on the site of the first Jewish cemetery in Ann Arbor, MI. These moving, representational works bring to life our inner dialogue with our own humanity.
Baskin received numerous honors, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Gold Medal of the National Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.