Holiday Cards 2016: Charley Harper’s Cardinals; The Group of Seven—Lawren S. Harris and Tom Thomson; Adolf Dehn—Starry Night. Pomegranate. $15 each (Cardinals, Seven); $12 (Dehn).
At a time of year traditionally associated with good wishes, good times and a good life – and importantly, for many, the prospect of a good afterlife – there seems precious little about which to rejoice this year. Gratitude for what is seems largely to have given way to dismay for what is not; pleasure for what one has appears to have diminished, while unhappiness over what one lacks seems to have increased. To some extent, as winter takes hold in the Northern Hemisphere, feelings of gloom are exacerbated by limited daylight, day after day of darkness beneath overcast skies, and biting cold – it is worth remembering that Dante’s Inferno has its ninth and lowest circle not in eternal heat but in a vast, perpetually frozen landscape. A traditional time of year for joy and thanks – whether to each other, among family members, or to higher powers – seems to have gone awry: yes, people may acknowledge, if it is pointed out to them, that they are better off than others (materially and even spiritually), but for many, it does not feel that way. This is not so much a matter of Yeats’ oft-quoted lines from The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Rather, it is later lines in the same poem that seem to be operative this year: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
One saving grace at a time of deep dissatisfaction – and make no mistake, it is a kind of grace – is art. And although most of us will never be artists, that is no barrier to sharing uplifting art along with the simple words, “Season’s Greetings.” A great way to do that is with holiday cards from Pomegranate, a publisher that promotes the inspirational nature of art through many media, from books to calendars to puzzles, stickers and games. So diverse and wide-ranging are Pomegranate’s offerings within its holiday-card line that it is hard to imagine anyone not being able to find something to provide a touch of uplift that can then be passed along to light a figurative candle in a darkness that seems all too real.
An excellent way to connect with things beyond ourselves is through nature, and a number of Pomegranate cards this year offer ways to do that – using art that is as different as the elements of nature itself. For example, Charley Harper’s Cardinals celebrates a bird that is strongly associated with winter because it does not fly away from the cold and snow but stands out against ice and bare tree limbs in the males’ brilliant red color. Harper (1922-2007) was a poet of the natural world, with a drawing style emphasizing an unrealistic flatness that somehow accentuates the features of animals and makes them seem realer than real. The approach is unusual and instantly recognizable once seen – Harper’s drawings are quite unlike those of other nature artists. There are four of them in the 20-card box, five cards with each drawing. “Cardinal Courtship,” showing a male and female beak to beak with the male about to pop a treat into the female’s mouth, is clear enough, and food is also the focus of “Cardinal Cuisine,” which shows a male pecking seeds from the snow-covered ground. These two designs are attractive and basically serious, but in Harper’s art, there is always a hint of humor, and that comes further to the fore in the other two designs. One is called “Cool Cardinal” and features a side view of a male upon which big white dots of snow are falling – and there is a small pile of show on his head, which he does not seem to mind at all. The rectangular scene of the cardinal is framed on both left and right by red dots on a white background, creating a very pleasing color scheme with a whimsical twist. The final design is called “B-r-r-r-r-rdbath” and shows a scene of a male cardinal, his bright red feathers complemented by a red frame that is shaped so the bird is seen in a circle, flapping his wings rapidly while sitting in a birdbath on a snowy day. This cardinal is the only one in this box looking right out of the card at the viewer – all the other birds are seen in side views – and the effect is one of peering through a porthole or circular window as the bird looks back. Harper’s cardinals can bring much-needed smiles both to the cards’ senders and to their recipients, providing a connection with nature that offers brief respite from complex human affairs.
Nature is seen on a grander scale in 20 cards from the Canadian artists’ community called the Group of Seven. Again there are five cards in each of four designs. The original central person in the group’s formation was Tom Thomson (1877-1917), and two of his works appear here, both from 1916. Both are woodland scenes showing a distinctive and meticulous approach to portrayal of trees in the snow; one is called “Snow in the Woods” and the other is titled “Wood Interior, Winter.” Both offer almost-realistic but subtly emphasized scenes of woodland tranquility beneath a blanket of undisturbed white. Thomson had died before the group he inspired was organized under the aegis of Lawren S. Harris (1885-1970), whose art is quite different from Thomson’s and complements it intriguingly in this holiday-card collection. Harris offers a more impressionistic view of nature, favoring, in these cards, triangular central features that taper toward the top and appear to reach ever upward. “Mt. Lefroy” (1930) is just what it says: a portrait of a snow-capped mountain whose top pierces the clouds. But this is not a realistically portrayed mountain: it is one capped by snow that looks almost like combed human hair, with neat parallel valleys flowing from the mountaintop downward as the mountain’s peak juts up into concentric circles of clouds. There is something almost hypnotic about the scene, which is calming as well as majestic. “Winter Comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone” (c. 1935) is similarly built around a central upward-striving peak, but here the perspective is managed in such a way that distance is uncertain: the mounds of snow in the foreground are shaped like the mountain in the background but may simply be covering a tapering tree that is nearby, with the mountain much more distant. The framing of this central scene uses concentric not-circles – they are jagged shapes done in hues of the same colors used for the mountain – and the whole picture pulls the eye in and causes it to swoop gently upward in a wholly suitable seasonal response to the art.
What is missing in both the Charley Harper and Group of Seven cards is any sense of human beings in or interacting with the natural scenes. But Pomegranate has other seasonal cards in which humans do appear, whether in an idealized setting or in a realistic one. Adolf Dehn (1895-1968) was a Minnesota artist who often portrayed regional scenes, and one such appears this year on a set of 12 holiday cards. Called “Starry Night” and inevitably calling up thoughts of the famous Van Gogh painting, this is a scene in which the vast dark sky and its sparkling stars fill more than half the card – but the immensity is not in the least uncomfortable. The reason is that the card’s foreground shows bare, snow-covered trees whose branches are highlighted against the night sky, and amid the trees – providing the only bright colors in the watercolor – are three people on skis just starting to head down a hill, plus, in a particularly nice touch, a deer whose curiosity has apparently brought it closer than usual to people (although it is still keeping its distance). There is a distinctly homey quality to this card, which does not glamorize or romanticize a winter night – it certainly looks cold enough, as the bundled-up skiers show – but which draws the eye up from the foreground snow into the heavens above, using a technique very different from that of Lawren Harris but one that is equally effective and in some ways more subtle. Those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday find it a time of spiritual comfort, and even those who do not share that faith can look to the season as one of warmth, human connection and striving to be better than we are. That is the counterweight to all the dismal feelings that seem to permeate life this year – and if these Pomegranate cards cannot, on their own, relieve the widespread sense of disaffection and anomie, they can at least provide a small measure of beauty and comfort to offset distress with quiet hope.
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