Monday, August 31, 2009

The Negro Portrayed as "a Beast"

This is the first of a series of posts highlighting important folk art pieces that will be featured in our traveling exhibition Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art opening at the New York State Museum in Albany on September 8. This exhibition, curated by Dr. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, explores the depictions of African Americans in 19th- and 20th-century American art created by white artists. A section of the exhibition also contrasts these images with works by African American artists dealing with the issues of race and identity.

The subject of this post is one of our most famous pieces, a sculpture of a dancing black man created about 1830-50 by an unidentified, almost certainly white, artist. This carving, which is 44 1/4" tall, was originally found in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1930s by the pioneering museum director and curator Holger Cahill. Cahill mounted some of the earliest folk art exhibitions at the Newark Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in the early 30s. At the time of its discovery, tradition held that this sculpture was originally a tavern sign. From Cahill it found its way into the collection of the modernist sculptor and folk art collector Elie Nadelman. After Nadelman’s death in 1947, it was purchased by Stephen C. Clark for the folk art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum. Its title at the time was “Dancing Negro.”

The sculpture certainly has seen the ravages of time and the elements. It was originally brightly painted and would have been an eye-catching image on a streetscape. It also would have been a familiar image, as the figure is a stereotypical Jim Crow character of the kind popularized in the minstrel music of Thomas Dartmouth Rice, seen below in a 19th-century engraving.

The amazing thing about our sculpture is how its racial caricature eluded so many knowledgable viewers over the years. In fact,the stereotyping of the figure’s dilapidated clothing and exaggerated facial features seems to have been, for most viewers, invisible. Cahill and Nadelman obviously admired it for its vitality and sense of physical movement. The art deco sculptor Paul Manship once called it “the greatest piece of American sculpture made before 1850.” And I distinctly recall scholars in the 1980s wondering aloud if this might be a portrait. Dr. Sorin’s label redresses this imbalance by stating: “The sculpture’s small stature and animal-like appearance reinforced ideas about black people as subhuman and beast-like.” The piece, now titled “Stereotypical Carving of an African American Man,” appears in the section of the exhibition that she entitled “The Negro Portrayed as 'a Beast.'”

Through the Eyes of Others is full of these provocative images of African Americans, juxtaposed with dynamic works exploring racial identity by such prominent African american artists as Lorna Simpson, Faith Ringgold, and Kyra Hicks. The exhibition shows how much of our nation’s history is bound up in considerations of race. It stands to reason that this great national dilemma would be reflected in our art as well, at all levels of society. Through the Eyes of Others will be on view at the State Museum through January 6, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Is it known what happened to the wooden statue of Rice which he used as advertising? After his death it was on sidewalk display in New York until at least the 1870-80s. It was made up of four separate pieces of wood, screwed together at the joints. Articles in the NYTimes attribute it variously to Rice himself (who apparently trained as a woodcarver); his former employer 'Charley' Dodge; and a notable carver of ships' figureheads called Wheeden.


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