You all know about my friend Tru Ludwig. He is one of the rare art historians who is also an artist. That combination is special because those people can not only tell you about the background history of the artist and the subject matter, but also how it was done with such a depth of knowledge it is breathtaking.
There were moments in the frantic shuffling of prints and interleaving during History of Prints at the BMA that I would purposefully stop to listen to Tru talk about Rembrandt's Three Crosses, Max Klinger’s Die Handschuh, Kathe Kollwitz’s Battlefield, and Leonard Baskin’s Hydrogen Man. Every time, Tru's oration would get me with goosebumps or tears welling; he is beautifully clear about how art is central to our existence. His magnificence in the classroom is why I asked him to make Platemark's History of Prints series.
While we've been making Platemark however, I've been apprenticing at Tru’s print studio, The Purple Crayon Press. Last year we spent two days pulling his magnificent etching called TapHistory (Repeated), 2005, which consists of two large sheets that are joined in the center. Each half is two plates: one in brown and one in red. Learning how to print has been extraordinary.
TapHistory is a play on the format of the Bayeux Tapestry, an important embroidered length of fabric that tells the tale of the lead-up to and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy defeated the British upstart Harold, Earl of Wessex, following the death of King Edward the Confessor. It is thought that the outcome changed England, its language, architecture, and way of life for the future in massive ways. The tapestry was created only a handful of years after the battle and offers vignettes that tell us about military strategy, armor, cooking conventions, fashion, and all sorts of stuff. It is some 230 feet long and 20 inches tall. The main action takes place along the center, while a top and bottom border carries other figures and stories, which sometimes are fables or cautionary snippets that forecast the future.
Tru’s print mimics that format. There is central action and a top and bottom border carrying other supporting information. In the central section is a map of the world, the kind you might find in an old National Geographic. Noted in tiny red stitches (mimicking the tapestry) arrows create paths of conquest by various peoples across time: Goths, Visigoths, Vikings, Mongols, etc.
It is also includes art historical quotations. That is Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii in the lower center, which depicts three sons and their father issuing an oath that will result in only one son surviving an upcoming land-dispute battle. In the left center is Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (in reverse). Over in Japan, two mushroom clouds rise above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And just above Washington are the Twin Towers—one is streaming smoke and the other is about to be hit by an airplane. Tru made this shortly after 9/11, no surprise.
To the right of the Oath of the Horatii is Muhammad Borne Aloft by the Buraq, from the Turkish version of The Progress of the Prophet, from the 16th century. The text running across the top of the central panel is “a quest for righteousness can never be repressed,” which is a quotation from Nelson Mandela in 2001. In the triangular space at the left edge are quotations from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, 1532. Opposite, in the righthand triangular space are excerpts from Baltimore County Public Schools letter sent to families following September 11, 2001 (Tru’s son was in a Baltimore County school at that point).
Overlaying the brown map in the central panel is the red outline (a chalk outline, if you will) of the dead toreador figure from Edouard Manet’s painting at the National Gallery of Art.
Across the top are partial faces of note: from left to right: Brian Sweeney, one of the pilots who died on Flight 175, which crashed into the south tower on 9/11; the angry eyes of the Statue of Liberty; Mohammed Atta, the alleged pilot of Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower on 9/11; Sharbat Gula in a full burka—she was the young woman with starkly green eyes who was photographed by Stephen McCurry in 1984 and was on the cover of National Geographic the following year; and Ogedei Khan, son of Mongol warlord Genghis Khan.
Along the bottom are small packs of warriors heading into battle from various periods of history, along with the Chinese proverb “War does not determine who is right. War determines who is left.”
I have often suggested to artists to reduce the number of elements in a work, thinking that if one thing says it well, you do not need five things. When I look at Tru’s print, I see cacophony, but also a deeply felt commitment to making the point: why are we doing this and why do we keep repeating history? The number of elements making the point is many. But then, that is the point, isn’t it? There are innumerable examples of conquest, war, and tragic deaths that have and continue to occur. It is maddening.
To Tru I bow in deep respect.
Tru Ludwig (American, born 1959). TapHistory (Repeated), 2005. 4-plate etching. 29 ½ x 76 ½. The Purple Crayon Press, Baltimore.
Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.