Work by Rosenwald fellows for sale at New York auction

Posted September 26th, 2012 by

On October 18th, Swann Galleries in New York will hold an auction of African American Fine Art. Among the lots for sale are prints, paintings and sculptures by 11 Rosenwald fellows: Charles Alston, Richmond Barthé, Elizabeth Catlett, Eldzier Cortor, Lawrence Arthur Jones, Ronald Joseph, Jacob Lawrence, William Eduoard Scott, Charles Sebree, Charles White and Hale Woodruff. One highlight is a print of Catlett’s iconic Sharecropper. Also interesting is Eldzier Cortor’s Classical Composition No. 4., which is estimated to go for the highest price in the auction. Rosenwald Fund grants often allowed artists the opportunity to study and work abroad (for example, see Augusta Savage or Elizabeth Catlett’s work). William Eduoard Scott’s When the Tide is Out is another example – it was done on his 1931 trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti under his Rosenwald fellowship.

By Michael Rose

Claude McKay referenced in latest episode of Boardwalk Empire

Posted September 25th, 2012 by

HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, is a period piece rich with historical detail. The show often references contemporary cultural touchstones as a way to develop its characters. The reference in last night’s episode to Harlem Renaissance poet, writer and Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay is a good example.

The second episode in the new season features a brief conversation between the bright and relatively well-off daughter and son of Chalky White, an African American gangster and bootlegger. Lester White (Chalky’s son) is presumably back from his first semester at Atlanta’s historic Morehouse College and he tells his sister about playing jazz piano in a roadhouse near campus. Before he departs, the two share a laugh over jazz being the “devil’s music” (it’s certainly a far cry from “Clair de lune,” which Lester performed for his father in an earlier episode) and Lester hands Maybelle (Chalky’s daughter) a book of McKay’s poems, telling her “They’re worth a look.”

One of the episode’s general themes is parenting and, specifically, the plot line with Chalky White and his children is about the disconnect between generations. Although Chalky pushes his children to attend college, he’s clashed in previous episodes with them over his illiteracy and his allegiance to Southern traditions. Chalky pays for his children’s education (primarily through illegal means) but he’s cut off from their academic and emotional growth.

McKay’s poems, like “The Lynching” and “If We Must Die,” were formative for young readers in the early 1920s, but they remained inaccessible to many from the previous generation, like Chalky White. McKay and other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance pointed the way to a new future with their artistic expressions, but “Boardwalk Empire” does a good job displaying the conflict of this vision with the pre-Civil Rights hopelessness of bitter racial division and violence. The scene also concisely shows how the cultural products of the Harlem Renaissance made their way around the country through word of mouth.

By Michael Rose

D.C. theater presents Tuskegee Airmen show, "Fly"

Posted September 21st, 2012 by

A new theatrical production opens tonight at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. “Fly” tells the story of the famous African American Air Force unit from Tuskegee that flew missions during World War II despite facing discrimination in the U.S. According to Jessica Goldstein’s Backstage column in the Washington Post, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, D.C. native Roscoe Brown, consulted on the project. Brown, who was also on the set of George Lucas’s Red Tails, helped the actors get the language and mannerisms of the period right.

Three Tuskegee pilots in Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945
Photo credit: Toni Frissell Collection, Library of Congress

The Tuskegee Airmen were featured on this blog last January, when Red Tails was playing in theaters. In 1941, the Rosenwald Fund appropriated a large sum of money to build a training field for in Tuskegee for the new group of African American pilots. Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the Rosenwald Fund’s board, took a well-publicized flight with one of the pilots to help endorse their skill and potential. More details can be found in our previous blog post.

Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C.
Photo credit: Robert Goodwin (flickr)

For those who don’t know, Ford’s Theatre is where President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. “Fly” is part of a multi-year series of productions at the historic theater that promote tolerance and understanding called the Lincoln Legacy Project.

By Michael Rose

Murals depicting African American life and history to be restored in Harlem

Posted September 20th, 2012 by

Robin Pogrebin for the New York Times reports that as Harlem Hospital gets a substantial makeover, a group of large murals that have graced the walls of the hospital since the 1930s are undergoing a multimillion dollar restoration. The murals were commissioned as part of the Federal Art Project of the WPA in the 1930s, and depict a variety of scenes from the history, everyday life and symbolism of African American culture. The murals, which have deteriorated and in some cases been covered up, will have a place of honor in a new publicly accessible gallery in the hospital.

A panel from Charles Alston’s “Modern Medicine,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University

Among the murals is a diptych by Charles Alston entitled “Magic in Medicine/Modern Medicine,” which shows the history of folk medicine alongside modern innovations and contemporary doctors. Alston, who received consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1940 and 1941, was a primary driving force behind the murals. The WPA initially blanched at the black-centric subject matter, citing concerns that the content could offend the black community and claiming it was shortsighted to focus on black history in a community that may not always have the same racial complexion. Their misguided criticisms may have resulted from the fact that, according to the New York Times, this was perhaps the biggest federally-funded art project to date that commissioned black artists. In response to the WPA’s pushback, Alston formed the Harlem Artists Guild (with another Harlem-based Rosenwald fellow, Augusta Savage) and successfully lobbied the WPA into allowing the project to proceed. The murals were worked on by a wide variety of artists, including other Rosenwald fellows such as Ronald Joseph.

 A panel from Vertis Hayes’ “Pursuit of Happiness,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University

In addition to Alston’s murals, “Pursuit of Happiness” by Vertis Hayes is a particularly interesting part of the collection. One panel of Hayes’ work in particular (pictured above) depicts the migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern industrial cities. This hopeful painting utilizes a dramatic symbol of progress, a giant cog, which is a common motif in art from the time period that depicts African American history, and can be seen in artworks by two Rosenwald fellows: Lamar Baker’s “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” and Aaron Douglas’s “Aspects of Negro Life,” pictured below. The latter was another WPA-commissioned mural and was originally displayed in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (which is nearby to Harlem Hospital as well as the Harlem Rosenwald YMCA).

A panel from Aaron Douglas’s 1934 “Aspects of Negro Life”
Photographed by Hane C. Lee (flickr)

Below is an excerpt from “A Study of Negro Artists,” a 1937 film which depicts several Harlem artists at work. The video is cued to a scene from the film that shows muralist Aaron Douglas painting in his studio. Douglas received his Rosenwald fellowship the same year the film was made, probably on the strength of his recent WPA murals and the paintings he contributed as cover art to Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay. With his grant, the New York-based artist traveled to the south to gain new inspiration for his work. If you stay tuned to the film, the next section features another WPA muralist named Palmer Hayden.


“A Study of Negro Artists,” 1937
Video credit: The Prelinger Archives / The Internet Archive

Although it was initially resistant, the WPA’s Federal Art Project became a valuable patron of African American art. It’s no coincidence that there are many intersections between the WPA and the Rosenwald Fund. In the early twentieth century, before the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rosenwald Fund and the WPA worked toward a common purpose, and together they made up a huge proportion of the support nationally for black artists.

This blog featured some more murals a couple of weeks ago by a different Rosenwald fellow, Hale Woodruff. Daniel Schulman has written that Charles Alston shared Woodruff’s spirit of experimentation, moving between different artistic styles. It’s great that both of their works are being restored and displayed publicly.

By Michael Rose

Repressed play by Rosenwald fellow finally making its U.S. premiere

Posted September 19th, 2012 by

Anthropologist, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham’s most notorious ballet, Southland, opened last weekend at The Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver. This is the first ever performance in the U.S., over sixty years after Dunham first produced it.

Southland debuted in Chile in 1951 and was immediately subjected to repression efforts by the U.S. State Department. The play dramatically stages the lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman, and in the anti-Communist fervor of the early 1950s it was considered dangerously subversive by government officials in the U.S. Dunham took the ballet to Paris, where it was also met with U.S. suppression efforts and criticism from the American embassy.

Katherine Dunham, 1956
Photo credit: New York World Telegram / Library of Congress

Dunham is often remembered for her roles in Hollywood pictures, but she was a talented anthropologist as well, and she received consecutive Rosenwald grants for anthropological research in 1935 and 1936. Dunham used these grants to travel to Caribbean nations and study indigenous dance forms, research which informed both her choreography and her academic study of the cultural links between African nations and the diaspora. The peripatetic researcher and artist’s first trip abroad was under this Rosenwald fellowship, and she later compiled her research into a Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.

Constance Valis Hill argued in a 1994 article in Dance Research Journal that Dunham’s Southland was ahead of its time, a work of protest art that may have been received more favorably a decade later during the upheaval of the 1960s. Although the ballet was criticized publicly at the time and caused strife within Dunham’s dance troupe, her artistic and critical vision of the Jim Crow American south is finally getting the treatment it deserves.

Read more about this performance and the history of the ballet at the Denver Post.

By Michael Rose

Unpublished manuscript by Rosenwald fellow discovered in New York

Posted September 18th, 2012 by

Last week, in the New York Times, Felicia R. Lee reported about a Columbia doctoral student’s discovery of a heretofore unpublished and basically unknown manuscript by the great Harlem Renaissance writer, intellectual and Rosenwald fellow, Claude McKay. Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep was found in a personal collection of rare books and papers left by deceased publisher Samuel Roth. The novel has been authenticated by several scholars and McKay’s estate gave its permission for it to be published.

McKay received his first Rosenwald grant at a turning point in his career. In 1935, he had already published his famous novel, Home to Harlem, and two others, and after this time he focused on autobiography and poetry. The discovery of this new manuscript changes that picture, however. 1933’s Banana Bottom was thought to be McKay’s final novel, but now it appears this 1941 book is his last work of fiction. Two years after completing Amiable With Big Teeth, McKay received another grant from the Rosenwald Fund in 1943 (again for creative writing).

Quoted in the Times, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is enthusiastic about the discovery of the novel for its contemporary depiction of attitudes in black cultural life and for the light it sheds on the later, less well documented, period of the Harlem Renaissance. The novel’s satire of communists illuminates McKay’s personal politics and also provides a look into a different facet of his artistic practice.

Earlier this year, another unknown novel by a Rosenwald fellow was discovered: Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth.

By Michael Rose

Sears' West Side Campus: the original Sears Tower in Chicago presides over a transitional neighborhood

Posted September 7th, 2012 by

The original Sears Tower, 930 S. Homan Avenue, Chicago
Photo credit: flickr user Zol87, June 3, 2009

While in Chicago, many tourists make a stop at the former headquarters of Sears located in the tallest building in the United States. The views of Chicago’s Loop from the top of what’s now known as the Willis Tower are stunning. An equally interesting view can be seen from the top of a different tower just four miles west of the Loop. This somewhat lesser known building, commonly referred to as “the original Sears Tower,” is found on the 40 acre North Lawndale campus that Sears called home for many years. The 249-foot building, originally surrounded on three sides by the massive Merchandise Building, now stands alone on a much smaller footprint facing Homan Avenue. Saved from destruction and later restored, this still empty but beautiful and striking building symbolizes both the history of Sears’ commercial might and the aspirations of the redeveloping community around it.

View of the Merchandise Building and Sears Tower
Photo credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, circa 1920s

Sears consolidated its operations in North Lawndale in 1906, a site considerably removed from its former location, a mishmash of unconnected warehouses in the West Loop. The new complex was built along the B&O rail line, but the surrounding neighborhood was primarily residential, not industrial. In the years after Sears opened its Homan Avenue campus, upwardly mobile Jews from areas closer to downtown settled in North Lawndale. The neighborhood, close to centers of employment and situated between two of Chicago’s beautiful west side parks (Douglas Park and Garfield Park) became a prosperous Jewish community filled with elegant greystone homes and successful businesses, theaters and community organizations.

With the help of his friend Henry Goldman, Julius Rosenwald led Sears to a successful IPO in 1906 and oversaw the construction of the Sears, Roebuck Complex on Homan Avenue. Rosenwald assumed greater and greater leadership in the company and took over as president from Richard Sears in 1908. Rosenwald competently managed the three million square foot campus (the largest business building in the world at the time) which featured a complex pneumatic tube system, a scale model of the interior of one of the pre-fabricated bungalows Sears sold and a chemical laboratory for testing new merchandise. An open invitation to members of the public went out in the Sears catalogue, and many people toured the facilities each week.

Sears was the largest employer in the area and the Homan Avenue campus became a self-sufficient town center for its employees. Along with its factory, rail yard and distribution center, the site also contained its own power plant and fire station along with a variety of amenities for employees such as a YMCA, a public library, a cafeteria and a dining room. Later, in 1925, the first Sears retail store opened at the Homan Ave campus. Under Rosenwald’s leadership, Sears was booming, and its campus, which resembled a modern day suburban office park, was sprawling by early twentieth century standards, with surplus space left open for future expansion. This space was put to good use, as the company provided gardens, tennis courts and baseball diamonds for its employees. The Sunken Garden park with its Greek Pergola, provided by Sears as a respite for its workers during day, can still be seen on Arthington Street.

The Sunken Garden and Pergola, circa 1910
Photo credit: flickr user rich701

Sears began to move out of the Homan Avenue complex in the 1970s. Since that time, as other employers eventually moved to the suburbs as well and the area’s original residents followed suit, North Lawndale became an impoverished area with rundown housing stock and few amenities for residents. Beginning in the early 1990s, affordable housing was built on the site as part of a comprehensive development known as Homan Square. Rosenwald would likely have approved of an initiative like this, given the passion he displayed for modern, affordable housing in the construction of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side. Homan Square is a mixed-use development that makes use of the site and some of the buildings of the former Sears headquarters. In addition to new housing, a large community center with indoor pool and gymnasium was built more recently at Homan Square, providing a vital amenity for North Lawndale residents. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the reuse of the Sears complex and grounds is the rehabilitation of the Power House Building, which once provided electricity for Sears’ operations. Power House High is a tuition-free charter high school that won awards in 2009 for its creative reuse of the remarkable building. Also known as The Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, the rehabilitated school made use of sustainable materials and building methods and preserved many of the large industrial machines left over from when Sears occupied the building. A PDF document detailing the historic features of the building can be found here.

View of North Lawndale from the Sears Tower
Photo credit: flickr user Ian Freimuth, October 16, 2011

The history of the neighborhood around the Sears complex is reflected in its housing stock. As you can see in the picture above, taken from the vantage of the Merchandise Building Tower, vintage working class two and three flats stand alongside elegant early twentieth century single-family greystone homes. Interspersed throughout, but especially in the foreground, are some of the recently constructed townhomes that make up the Homan Square development on what used to be the grounds of the Sears complex. By building affordable housing alongside retail, community services and schools, and integrating it all into the existing neighborhood, the Homan Square development is leading the charge in revitalizing North Lawndale. The community today is very different than it was in 1906, but the Sears campus is once again at the center of it.

By Michael Rose

Rosewood Beach poised for redevelopment; the legacy of the Rosenwalds on Chicago’s North Shore

Posted September 6th, 2012 by

Julius Rosenwald’s estate sat in one of the scenic and highly prized ravines of Lake Michigan’s northern shoreline, in the town Highland Park. Although the Rosenwald home burned down some years ago, the parks department of Highland Park turned the grounds of the estate into Rosewood Park and Beach. This scenic public park, which abuts Lake Michigan, gains from its original design by the famous Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen. Jensen designed this and many other grounds in the Chicago area in his distinctive “prairie style,” utilizing open spaces and native plants.

Rosewood Beach
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, May 2012

Recently, the park and beach have been the subject of an ongoing debate about whether to add infrastructure or to leave the space as is. Neighbors are divided on the issue. Last week, in spite of strong resistance from some residents, the park commissioners of the town of Highland Park unanimously approved a plan that would add restrooms, a concession stand, a lifeguard shelter and a lakeside “interpretive center.” Opponents of the redevelopment cited concerns that the interpretive center’s location on the beach would make it susceptible to damage from storms and that the new infrastructure would ruin the “natural and tranquil environment” of Rosewood Beach (“Leave Rosewood Beach alone,” the Chicago Sun-Times). The Chicago Tribune reports: “People on both sides of the debate invoked the names of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who owned an estate on the beach, and celebrated landscape architect Jens Jensen, who designed the estate’s grounds, trying to ascertain what each historical figure would think of the project.” Enlisting Jenson and Rosenwald into either side of the debate would be difficult to do, as both men clearly valued the tranquility and natural landscaping of Ravinia while also appreciating the importance of public space.

Regarding this latter point, Julius Rosenwald’s wife Augusta was perhaps best known for her contributions to the parks of Illinois. Along the Union Pacific North rail line in downtown Highland Park is a small park designed by Jens Jensen, built in commemoration of the landscape architect who lived and worked nearby on Dean Avenue. But the park is also a memorial to another famous resident of the Ravinia section of Highland Park: Augusta Rosenwald. In addition to commissioning his work at the Rosenwald estate, the Rosenwalds were personal friends of Jensen and Augusta was a member of his park advocacy organization, the “Friends of Our Native Landscape.” The Friends lobbied for the creation of new state and national parks in Illinois in areas with unique natural features such as the Indiana Dunes and the Shawnee National Forest, as well as the augmentation of existing parks such as Starved Rock. The centerpiece of Jens Jensen Park is a council ring (a trademark of Jensen’s work) that surrounds a boulder with a small plaque memorializing Augusta Rosenwald. The boulder, installed in 1930, a year after Augusta’s death, is a fitting tribute to the friendship and shared advocacy of Jensen and “Gussie” for the preservation of historical and scenic parts of the landscape around Chicago.

Boulder honoring Augusta Rosenwald in Jens Jensen Park (click the image to view a larger version)
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, May 2012

In late May of this year, Aviva and Peter Ascoli (grandson and biographer of Julius Rosenwald) visited the Ravinia community in Chicago’s suburbs where Rosenwald had a summer home. Aviva and Peter attended the dedication by the town historical society of a plaque commemorating Rosenwald’s achievements and philanthropy. The plaque was embedded into the sidewalk of Central Avenue in Highland Park.

Sidewalk plaque honoring Julius Rosenwald in Highland Park
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, May 2012

By Michael Rose

 

Rosenwald fellow's restored murals to be displayed

Posted September 6th, 2012 by

A set of six murals by the great African American artist Hale Woodruff are kicking off a tour of several cities at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Woodruff, one of the most celebrated American painters of the twentieth century, chose the slave rebellion on the Amistad as the subject for these murals which originally hung at Talladega College in Alabama. The recently restored murals were completed in 1938, five years before Woodruff received consecutive Rosenwald Fellowships to work and teach in New York, where he would stay until he retired decades later. After Atlanta, the murals will travel between now and 2015 to Dallas, New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Hartford, Detroit and finally Birmingham, so be on the lookout for them at a museum near you. Thanks to our neighbor, Robert Mallet, for letting us know about the exhibit in Atlanta.

Hale Woodruff working on a mural, 1942
Photo credit: Library of Congress via Office of War Information

By Michael Rose

Theatrical production of Rosenwald fellow's famous novel premieres in D.C.

Posted September 5th, 2012 by

A theatrical production of Ralph Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel, Invisible Man premieres tonight at the Studio Theatre in Washington D.C. Ellison began working on Invisible Man in 1945, with the resources provided to him by a Rosenwald Fellowship. This is the second staging of Oren Jacoby’s theatrical adaptation of the novel, which had never before been adapted in any form. The Studio Theatre’s show features the same director and star as the early 2012 premiere production at the Court Theater at the University of Chicago. Jessica Goldstein describes the most striking feature of the stage design in today’s Washington Post, the 650 light bulbs that light up the eponymous character’s underground dwelling. Information about the schedule and tickets can be found on the Studio Theatre’s website.

Ralph Ellison, 1961
United States Information Agency via Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons