Dr hab. Krzysztof Marek Bąk prof.

Some elements that appear in the compositions ("Grand Luminary" flag,  c. 1890; windmill in Garden County, NE; a covered wagon; a steam engine and J. F. Millet's. Des glaneuses, 1857)

Dealing with Willa Cather's literature and trying to create graphics inspired by her work is dealing with the myth of the world that we know only from imagination. It's a journey in time and space. For me, as an author whose main means of expression are symbols and metaphors, trying to "illustrate" is a big challenge because I am unfamiliar with narrative - typical of a realistic novel.  When analyzing the text of the American writer, it was necessary to find a synthesis, regardless of specific characters or events described in the novel, to search for a visual message and attempt to interpret it. An interpretation that is so difficult because it takes into account the context of the novel itself as well as the changes in our (readers') mentality and perception of phenomena after more than a century that has passed since it was written.


I assumed as a point of reference that I would not give up my individual "view" of the times described in the book.  So I will use staffage, perhaps a bit idealized, but rooted in the collective consciousness and imagination of the 19th century. Hence the period-appropriate props, costumes and stylings perpetuated in our iconosphere by the myths of the Wild West and the pioneering times of America in their twilight years.  I wanted to emphasize the American nature of the novel as, in my opinion, the key issue in Willa Cather's writing. Hence the American flag appearing in one of the graphics, which is also a farm field. A recurring element of the graphics is also a miniature silhouette of a train - rooted in the myth of the journey to the west, and at the same time found in the flag of Nebraska, with which, as we know, the writer was associated.


The Great Seal of the State of Nebraska, adopted in 1867, featuring a steamboat on the Missouri river and a steam train crossing the Rocky Mountains. 


And so the motif - a steam locomotive - appears in the award-winning graphic (opus 2426) inspired by the novel A Lost Lady.  The core of the composition is a woman-mannequin symbolizing the heroine - Marian Forrester. The character falls apart, which is a sign of the hero's moral and financial decline (extramarital affair and loss of property).  The bird in the nest symbolizes Niel Herbert, who meets Marian as a child and falls in love with her - the bird is a symbol of childhood idealization.


The graphic (opus 2417) refers to the same novel, in which I focus directly on the person of Captain Daniel Forrester - his fortune related to machines and his fall from a horse - which symbolically can be understood as the end of the pioneer era, presented in the graphic as the domination (overwhelming weight) of technology  over nature.


Willa Cather. A lost lady. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923.

The three graphics (opus 2409, 2411, 2418) are a visual commentary inspired by Cather's most famous novel O Pioneers!. The first two opuses are not direct illustrations.  Rather, they are a search for ideas and the spirit of pioneering. The graphic has in its composition the iconic representation of "women gathering ears of grain" by Jean-François Millet, but instead of in a field, they do it on a fragment of the American flag - of course, it is a symbol of a new land for Europeans, which becomes a home and a fertile place to live. The next graphic is a short, almost Western approach to the theme of pioneering, using the characteristic attribute of a wagon for transporting belongings - visually identified with the conquest of the American West.  Opus 2418 refers directly (though through synthesis) to the novel - it presents the heroine, Aleksandra, and elements of a farm based on pigs.


Willa Cather. O pioneers!. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1913. 


The last text that I decided to illustrate in the series dedicated to the memory of Willa Cather was Sapphira and the Slave Girl and the story of Nancy, the heroine who manages to free herself from slavery. Here, in the pictorial layer, a slave shed and broken shackles appear - as elements building a "portrait" of an African-American girl.


Willa Cather. Shapphira and the slave girl. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.  The Letter to Roscoe Cather is in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The short explanations provided show my course of interpretation. Focused on the general feeling of the atmosphere of the American's writing, rather than details. I avoid psychological interpretations of individual characters, believing that the literary context could become unreadable.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I tried to make the story about Willa Cather's works a distant interpretation and the result of a search for universal elements in her novels, rather than a direct illustration of events or people.  This is a big challenge because each symbol itself is ambiguous. Understanding it or assigning meaning to it results from our own experiences, the cultural context from which it grows and the visual language we use every day. And these are different for residents of different areas of Europe or America, especially if the geographical distance is combined with a significant time difference (over a hundred years).  However, being aware of the subjectivity of the graphic designer's attempts, the viewer can see the world presented by Cather through a completely different prism, different from his own interpretive filter.  I hope it is an interesting experience that expands the multi-faceted nature of the American writer's literature.


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