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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.