In the Eye of the Muses
Jan Christian Bernabe
In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection, commemorates two historically significant events in African American art history, the 70th anniversary of the formation of the collection and the 60th year anniversary of the unveiling of Hale Woodruff’s mural, The Art of the Negro. The volume is edited by Tina Maria Dunkley and Jerry Cullum (Clark Atlanta University, 2012).
The art collection owes its existence to the African American arts visionary, Hale Woodruff. Atlanta University and Clark College were separate institutions then, merging into Clark Atlanta University only in 1988. At the invitation of John Hope, Atlanta University's first African American president, Woodruff joined Atlanta University in 1931 to start an art department. Almost immediately, he proposed one of the most important and ambitious art initiatives that the post bellum South would experience in the modern era. Woodruff proposed a three-pronged framework to provide African American artists a venue to show their work, provide them with cash prizes and share their artwork with the community at large. The prizes were incentives for artists to develop their skills by producing pieces for Atlanta University to purchase.
In the Spring of 1942, Woodruff saw his proposal come to fruition. The very first Exhibition of Paintings, Prints, and Sculpture by Negro Artists of America opened. Nearly 30 juried exhibitions sponsored by Atlanta University would be held annually until 1970. These exhibitions would later be called Atlanta University Art Annuals. Each contributed to the growth of the Art Collection, with Atlanta University's purchases of the top prizes of oil and watercolor paintings, prints, and sculptures. In total, the annual exhibitions secured 291 pieces for the core collection. Donations from art patrons and acquisitions have grown the Art Collection to about 1,200 pieces. The primary focus continues to be African American art, but works by other artists of color are also included.
Invited to introduce the first art annual in 1942, Alain Locke, the preeminent scholar, philosopher, and figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance, offered the opening remarks to what would become the pinnacle event for efflorescence of African American art in the United States outside of New York City. In his statement, Locke conveyed the transformative potential of the arts in the "Southland," which, as he predicted, "will bring healthy growth and bear rich fruit.” And indeed, the art annuals proved to be unique in their mission. While artists like Jacob Lawrence, who won in 1947 for his vibrant cubist-inspired oil painting Playland, would secure a place within the canon of American art, others would have only their prize victory as their legacy. An example of this is the self-taught Otis Galbreath. His folk-style realistic oil painting, Let Bygones Be Bygones, won in 1964. The annual exhibition embraced an egalitarian spirit, for both trained artists and self-taught artists could submit artwork to be judged.
What readers will find useful and enthralling in In the Eye of the Muses is the remarkable and almost near complete reproductions of the artwork acquired through the art annuals. The color reproductions of the artwork and the accompanying details of the prizes and the lists of jury members will attract both art historians and lay art appreciators alike. Chronologically organized, the artwork brings into light the affective and social milieus of the artists and the African American community in the United States writ large. The book also contains biographies of all the artists represented in the art collection, as well as additional reproductions of donated and acquired pieces. The book contains archival material as well: photographs, letters between African American artist Romare Bearden and then Atlanta University president Rufus Clement regarding the racial exclusivity of the art annuals, and reproductions of missing art pieces from the core collection. In the Eye of the Muses also includes copies of 1945 and 1951 Time magazine reviews of the art annuals. Both reviews teeter on predictable themes, and criticism of specific pieces are imbued with clichéd ideas about race in the reviewers’ attempts to make sense of the figurative forms in the artwork. Unfortunately, the Time reviewers only scratched the surface.
In the Eye of the Muses recognizes the heavy constraints placed against African Americans in the South. Indeed, we need only to remember that these art annuals emerged and flourished during a tumultuous period of American history. In the 1940s and 1950s, African American communities located in what Locke in his inaugural speech called “the Southland” continued to be ravaged by Jim Crow racial restrictions across all sectors of Southern society. Racial segregation was as commonplace as the daily violence and antagonistic speech inflicted toward African Americans. These quotidian realities of African American life were often inspirations for many of the artworks. As Tina Dunkley notes of the core art collection: “Predominated by figurative content, the recurring themes are alienation, travail, history, genre, religion, and portraiture.”
Negro Woman (1952) by John Woodrow Wilson captures an attention to portraiture and exudes the social climate of the day throughout the canvas. Her eyes say it all. With the start of World War II and the participation of many African American soldiers in the war, it comes as no surprise that paintings like John Woodrow Wilson’s Black Soldier (1943) and Mark Hewitt’s Spirit of the 366th (n.d.) convey the emotional toll that World War II inflicted on African American soldiers and their families. Both works won prizes at the exhibitions. As the larger fine art world continued to celebrate the successes of the abstract expressionist movement in the 1950s, artist like Geraldine McCullough in The Black Knight (n.d.) and Alexander S. McMath’s Prelude to a Kiss (n.d.) would harness the language and forms of abstract expressionism in their work, but would not relegate form beneath content. Rather, both artists infused their paintings with the sensibilities and movements grounded in the spirit of African American culture as jazz musicians did in their compositions decades prior.
The influence of the Civil Rights Movement also found its way into the art annuals, specifically in the last show in 1970, when all of the members of the Jury of Selection were African American—the first time and the last. It is worth noting that the winning assemblage sculpture in the 1970 exhibition was James Newton’s The American Sixties (1969) that, in its minimalistic way, symbolically comments on the rise of black nationalism and civil rights politics of the 1960s. The work features three semi-automatic guns, segmented blocks, and cut out stars all painted in black, with the only color being a thin ribbon of red, white, and blue.
Murals After 60 Years
Hale Woodruff’s mural, The Art of the Negro, was unveiled at Atlanta University in 1952. Woodruff apprenticed under Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and Rivera’s influence can be readily spotted in Woodruff’s own mural work. Like Rivera, Woodruff often focused on historical and cultural themes, displaying varying degrees of political overtones. The spaces in Woodruff’s murals are densely packed with figures and objects, forming complex yet edifying African American historical narratives. We need only look at Woodruff’s most admired three-paneled Amistad Murals, commissioned by Talladega College in 1938, to get a sense of Woodruff’s interests in representing racial uplift through the depictions of heroic events and figures in African American history.
We also see Rivera’s influence in the ways that Woodruff represented the human form, an example of transcultural exchange that Woodruff would tap into to produce The Art of the Negro muralfor Atlanta University. The attention to positive African American visual narratives would become Woodruff’s defining ethos and would guide him in the production of The Art of the Negro for display in the foyer of the Trevor Arnett Library.
In the Eye of the Muses includes reproductions of Woodruff’s studies for the murals as well as the final mural pieces that are currently in the Trevor Arnett building. Also included in the book is an insightful essay by art historian Jerry Cullum that provides historical context and critical readings of Woodruff’s The Art of the Negro studies and the final mural now on display.
The Art of the Negro foregrounds Woodruff’s centering of African (male) bodies and their importance to the larger narrative of Western knowledge production. The titles of the each of the panels of the mural provide a narrative arc for its viewers. The titles move from Native Forms, Interchange, Dissipation to Parallels, Influences, and Muses. Art historical surveys of Western art often begin with discussions of cave paintings of Lascaux in France. Woodruff, however, reconfigures the discipline of art history’s origin story by placing Africans squarely at its center in the panel Native Forms. He also represents African influences in Western epistemology as seen in Interchange as well as African influences in Western aesthetics in the aptly titled panel Influences.
In the somber panel Dissipation, Woodruff does not shy away from depicting the violence of colonialism; rather he centers the harsh outcomes of colonialism through painting the destruction of African objects. Dissipation, more broadly, speaks to the obliteration of African artistic traditions.
In the final panel, Muses, Woodruff envisions the transhistorical alliances between the African artist at center in his indigenous garb and the artists of color surrounding him. Each of the figures that surround the central figure has followed in the African man’s footsteps. The African figure at center is their muse. Yet, the other men in the panel have also become muses in their own right over the years to the many students and community members who have stopped to reflect on Woodruff’s mural.
Out From the Basement
Given the prominent placement of Woodruff’s The Art of the Negro mural in the foyer to the Trevor Arnett Library, it seems curious, if not ironic, that the artwork from the art annuals were relegated to a poorly lit basement space in the same building after the final show in 1970. Art collector and essay contributor Brenda Thompson recalls, “The Trevor Arnett basement was cramped and the lighting poor, so the artworks were hard to see.” Thompson’s recollection is a far departure from the vibrant ambiance of the art annual openings that African American artist and essay contributor Freddie Styles remembers as “gala affairs . . . people wore their very best clothing to impress.”
In 1979, then African American studies graduate student Tina Dunkley had a serendipitous encounter with the art in the basement that would change the trajectory of the collection. Bringing the artwork from out of obscurity, out from the dimly lit basement, would take over a decade after her initial encounter with it. As the collection’s director when returning to Clark Atlanta University in 1994, Dunkley led the renovation of the Trevor Arnett building to accommodate the university’s important art. She would guide its trajectory into exciting terrains, as In the Eye of the Muses is one of many fantastic outcomes of her stewardship. The art collection is now housed in the reading room of the former library, and Woodruff’s The Art of the Negro serves as a fitting introduction to the collection.
Power of the Visionaries
Despite the heavy socio-cultural constraints that burdened African American artists, the art annuals became a cultural beacon for them. As In the Eye of the Muses brilliantly captures, African American arts were celebrated, and they flourished in Atlanta University three decades. For many of the artists, these art annuals were the only opportunities for them to show their work, given the racial antagonism that they faced from the larger predominately white fine arts world. Alain Locke, however, foreshadowed the potential of the annual exhibitions in his opening remarks in 1942. As Locke believed, "contemporary young Negro artists are now in its vanguard," and he predicted the important soci-cultural and political impact that the young artists and their artwork could achieve. Their artwork had the power to uplift a race. Even if momentarily, the artwork could transport its viewers away from the harsh realities of their real-life experiences by exposing them to the vitality, creativity, and broad range of the artistic talents of the African American artists who participated. Ultimately, the art annuals proved successful in unsettling the canon of American art by creating new muses for budding African American artists, art patrons and students of art history.
In many ways, In the Eye of the Muses is a bound collection of visionaries. Artists and intellectuals alike are written about with sincerity and authenticity, and the artwork reproduced in the book capture transformative moments in American art history that Hale Woodruff would certainly nod at approvingly. Seventy years have passed since the first art annual, and the guiding question of the necessity of race-specific exhibition venues or curatorial projects remains as true and pressing today as it did in Woodruff’s day.
If there are two things readers should realize after they finish reading and looking at the art In the Eye of the Muses they are art continues to serve as a powerful and instructive site of transformation and learning; and that we are very lucky to have such a unique and important art collection housed at Clark Atlanta University.
Jan Christian Bernabe is an independent scholar, editor and curator who is based in Chicago.