Monday, March 9, 2009

4. Fraktur Is A Species of Language Flower

Fraktur is a species of language flower, but according to Weiser, " basic fact must be underscored in studying these documents--the illumination was auxiliary to the text" ("Piety and Protocol in Folk Art," 1). However,  it can be shown that such illuminations emerge from the text. Consider Plate 60 of Hershey's This Teaching, "Ihr Kinder Wolt ihr Lieben," ("O Children Who Are Loving"). The design is attributed to schoolmaster Jacob Gottschall (1793), but the text, "O Children" is a hymn of Christopher Dock's, himself a schoolteacher.  One intention of Pennsylvania Fraktur was to teach the alphabet to children, but here the  letter strokes mimic the design of the flowers in the composition, making it a kind of Calligrammes, a hand drawn vispo, a flower of hand and mind. It was presented as a reward to a student, Anna Kampffer in 1793. We paint the drawing with words.

A vine, a "stem" of tulips germinates from a globe/seed in the right corner. This spreads up and to the left. Another bloom of this "plant," slightly unconnected and larger, blooms down from the top left as though rooted in air, coextensive, but separate from the vine. The second larger bloom mimics the colors and shapes of the capitals of the title, Ihr Kinder in rose, blue and gold stripes, as though the letters were flowers or the flowers letters.The upstroke of the blue I combines with the down stroke of the rose h, making three letters out of two, an elision designed. The larger blooms have smaller dark stems, unrooted, air borne. A current of air lifts the "letter petal" leaves, from right to left which "bloom" in two large four-chambered blossoms, penetrated by segments of the unattached vine. Through each center of the four chambers (circles) of the flower, covered by a cross hatched red and gold diamond, runs Hershey's "checkerboard."
so ubt was freude worth...
Erquicken Hertz und muth

[The practice of joy...
quickens hearts and minds.]

Several phonetic cognates sound like English.The immediate short lines and rhymes are felt in translation said aloud. The vine that springs from the seed at the lower right flows across the top of the page, which seed, translates as, "Be with us, on all our ways / Dear God with thy blessing." That is, the blessing rises in the vine. The title words Ihr Kinder, underlined in gold, resemble the block style of Dock's fraktur. These intersect the center of the page and divide the text below from its flower above, as if a flower of the text rises from the word garden. Language flowers teach children to identify petal letters. The writing of the text below in thirteen long cursive lines, is identified in stanzas only by numerals 1 to 5, set in a hand so small the students must have known the hymn by heart.

A child art, the colors, floral designs intend to attract the eye. At least among Mennonites fraktur was child art, designed for children, sometimes executed by children with its colors and floral designs intended for the child's eye. Before we defame it as not high art we should remember our literary master William Blake and fear his reproving. The first study of it was by H. C. Mercer, "The Survival of the Medieval Art of Illuminated Writing Among Pennsylvania Germans." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 36 (1898): No. 156, 423-432.

That paradise accompanies the child is the point of paradise art, to decorate the new with hope. Pennyslvania German art is an art of paradise reckoned from the child archetype. Fraktur Vorschrift were given to school children as a reward for good performance. The teacher would make a flower as a bookmark or a watercolor according to ever more elaborate systems of ornament. Verses of the Bible turn the letters of words into flowers. The message was, "here is a picture of paradise." These days we give them greenbacks. Such symbols emerged from a life view that fostered them, that implied a millennium ready to lie down with the lion and lamb, now forsworn for Pop. Their notion of paradise fostered a fantastic idealism of decoration on linen, furniture, pottery, barns. They planted equally fantastic gardens if they moved to the city, covered their windowsills with violets. "We have heard how Christopher Dock prodded his pupils with such drawings. If he did not originate the practice, he is evidence that it was in use at an early date, for Dock wrote in 1750. These tiny scraps of paper with birds, tulips, other flowers and occasionally other subjects survive by the dozens" (Weiser, xx).  In the greater tradition it had wider applications. Most of this communal body was unsigned, but it was repeated again and again in images that migrated from paper to linen (show towels) to wood (decorated chests).

There are individual characteristics of fraktur artists. Dock uses block designs, initial capital letters filled with swirls and stipples, as Hershey puts it (59f ). He includes an alphabet and numbers in German and in English, with some scripture translated to English, a bilingualism that mostly ended with him. Sometimes he runs a banner through the illuminated title or above it. His students imitate these features, establishing a style which grows more ornate in later examples. Borders marked by whirls also under gird the initial letter in descending spirals, a common feature of Pennsylvania signatures.

Fraktur also occurs in baptismal certificates called Taufschien, mostly printed, but the most notable are freehand letters of reward and instruction, vorschrift, given to children. Until Hershey's Teaching (2003) there were few good reproductions. In a similar manner Blake's watercolors were hidden from public eye, although inferior reproductions existed. The essentially different genres of Taufschien and vorschrift, which divide art from text mirror the divided demographics of the Pennsylvania German,. Ninety per cent were "churched" so called, that is, the Lutheran and Reformed Taufschien. Ten per cent were Mennonite and Anabaptist vorschrift. The "churched"  assumed proprietary status over the whole by their majority status, but the social/political acts of Mennonites often outweighed them, which sibling rivalry impacts all discussion.

Free Library of Philadelphia’s digital collection of Fraktur. 

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