Lincoln’s Fundamental Creed: Antonio Frasconi (1919-2013)

March 15, 2013

Antonio Frasconi, Guns, from Oda a Lorca, 1962.

Antonio Frasconi, Lincoln Memorial, 1956.

Antonio Frasconi, the great graphic artist, illustrator, teacher and humanitarian, created this woodcut of the Lincoln Memorial, which resides in the nation’s capitol next to the famous words of the Gettysburg address, “That government, of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” He titled this 1956 work “The Fundamental Creed of Abraham Lincoln.” It was a fundamental creed that expressed the ideals of the artist and the president’s namesake, the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as well. Just as the ALB defended the democratically elected government of Spain, Antonio Frasconi was an internationalist who used his artwork to raise his voice for social justice both in his adopted country, the United States, and in his various prints on Vietnam, Spain and Uruguay. In a Pratt Institute Printmaking Center catalog, Fritz Eichenberg referred to Frasconi as an artist “who embraces unpopular causes with uncommon compassion.”

Antonio Frasconi, Franco III, from Oda a Lorca, 1962.

Words were very important to Frasconi. They not only inspired the woodcut of Lincoln, but appeared in portraits of his heroes, Walt Whitman, Goethe, Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Sean O’Casey and Federico Garcia Lorca, artists who, like Frasconi, were engaged with the social issues of their times. These authors and their ideas were so important to him, that he often self-published folios of prints about them without waiting for a commission or contract.

In 1962, at a time when it was not popular to criticize Franco, Frasconi published Oda A Lorca, an illustrated book with fourteen lithographs. A fragment of text from the poem by the great republican poet Antonio Machado describes the murder of Lorca by the fascist Civil Guard. Frasconi’s hand-designed font results in a page of great calligraphic beauty.

Antonio Frasconi, “The Disappeared” (1981-88).

In “Guns,” the artist leaves the barrels uninked, their horizontal negative spaces in sharp contrast to the thick black lines, almost daggers to the heart, on the body of Lorca. This alternation of text and visuals throughout the book builds to a strong emotional impact.

The last lithograph from the Oda a Lorca is one of three satirical portraits of Franco, in which Frasconi drew upon his early background as a political cartoonist. In the series, Franco is depicted from three vantage points, as if a camera were zooming in, going from a wide-angle view to a close up. In the first print Franco is seen from a distance, a lone figure against a stone wall, standing on the rubble of what is perhaps the civilization fascism has destroyed, a barren landscape suggesting disjointed limbs, military scrap metal and obsolete weapons. Is this the “collateral damage” of the dictatorship? The middle ground shot shown above zooms in to show that Franco’s brittle armor seems to be made of barbed wire, bricks and straw, a portrait of an apprehensive man hiding behind the edifice of the church, his crown. Topped with bull’s horns, it has a suggestion of the medieval, the antithesis of the forces for progress and enlightenment which Franco was suppressing.

In 1976, Frasconi’s work was collected in the book Against the Grain a pun on his masterful use of wood in his prints as well as his tendency to go against the grain of the political powers. There is no better example of this than his work in Los Desaparecidos, an indictment of the 12-year military dictatorship in Uruguay, where the Argentine-born artist was raised. Frasconi considered this the culmination of his boyhood dreams of becoming a journalist -artist. In the work below the block of wood becomes as malleable as delicate lace, conveying the emotional state of the terrorized victims of the regime through body language, drapery folds and composition. Here he adroitly achieved his goal of utilizing aesthetic, formal concerns and technique to the greater purpose of serving the content, an expose of the brutality and human suffering under the Uruguayan dictatorship, which had the highest per capita percentage of political prisoners in the world. His subjects have the same common humanity and display the same universality of the human condition as those of another one of his influences, the German Expressionist Kathe Kollwitz.

Frasconi, this artist who has trained such an unflinching, laser sharp focus on the most troubling issues of our times, has said his work “celebrates the joy of living.”  His award winning children’s illustrations infused classics such as Aesop’s Fables or Pablo Neruda’s Bestiary with freshly imagined imagery. He also pioneered bilingual language education and promoted the divergent thinking that is a byproduct with his book of first words in four languages, Look, See, Say. At a lecture given at the Library of Congress he said he wanted to “show that there are different ways to say the same thing, that there is more than one nation in our world…I discovered that my work could in some ways introduce a young mind to an understanding of our vast cultures.”  He was an educator to all age groups. Perhaps the “joy of living” he referred to came from the optimism engendered by an alignment with the future. His work reflects a lifetime of empathetic, insightful children’s illustrations and celebrations of those heroes, like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who furthered our progress, even at great sacrifice, with their courageous actions, words and ideas.

Nancy Wallach, member of the ALBA Board, is the daughter of Lincoln vet Hy Wallach.