Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Victor Hammer - "more of a monk than anybody I know"

Victor and Carolyn Hammer at the Stamperia del Santuccio in Lexington, KY, ca. 1960.

Victor Hammer was a traditional artist-craftsman from the old school. Born in Vienna, he revered dexterity, apprenticeship, recipes passed down through generations of studio work. When the Nazis annexed Austria, he came to the United States, eventually becoming an artist-in-residence at Transylvania College in Lexington, KY. There he re-established a printmaking art known as the Stamperia del Santuccio, a name he had used while making books in Florence. Designing many of his own typefaces and cutting by hand, he was able to print some of the most beautiful books one will ever see.

Merton and Victor began working together in 1958, and the bond between them could not have been stronger. In 1960 he published an edition of Merton's much-appreciated poem, Hagia Sophia, the female figure of Holy Wisdom. Victor had painted her image without knowing who it was he was painting.

Of Victor, Merton wrote in his journal:

"Victor is more of a monk than anybody I know because he is rooted in his own solitude, his integrity and his work which receives no publicity. And he does not rebel uselessly, he is content, yet maintains his true honor in simplicity. There's therefore in him a humility and honor together, a kind of monastic silence. Not a passive self-effacement but a quietness that speaks to anyone who can listen, for it is full of honest reality."
- Turning Toward the World, p. 69


  1. What Merton said Victor had...that's what I want.... if I have an ultimate goal for my life, that's it.

  2. yes, that quote jumped out at me as well. Especially the "he does not rebel uselessly".

    There is more to say about the relationship between Merton and Victor Hammer. Victor was the traditionalist, and Merton came up against a certain "boundness" in Victor, whereas Victor came up against the recklessness of Merton. The extreme graciousness with which these friends carried their differences within a context of the highest respect and unlimited love for each other is remarkable.

  3. I should have said that Victor came up against Merton's "abstractness", rather than recklessness, specifically referring to the art of each.

    I really don't think that Merton was "reckless", even though many interpret parts of his life and art as such.

    Merton was especially sensitive to how Victor would react to his art when it was exhibited in Louisville, and he did not invite the Hammers to a private viewing that was held for special friends. The only comment Victor gave to Merton about the calligraphies was: "It is a mad world we live in and I am afraid you are not fully aware of it with the things you draw as an artist. Or are you?"

    When Merton wrote a foreward to a catalogue to Victor's work, he ventured into the terrain where they could not meet:

    "Though Victor Hammer has devoted himself to making explicit the content of his paintings, I must confess that I still find more that is implicit and therefore mysterious, and in fact I think he is sometimes more enigmatic, at least to me, than much abstract painting."


The Merton Center

I don't know why it took me so long to get to The Merton Center in Louisville. I've been in and out of KY several times over the yea...