Other People Are Looking at Us: Visual Commentaries on Social Change

Other People Are Looking at Us: Visual Commentaries on Social Change – paintings

Visual Commentaries on Social Change

After last year’s O.J. Simpson trial and on into the Million Man March, relations between whites and blacks in offices and on college campuses across the country were strained. While the strain ,,vas disturbing on the surface, below it lay an impetus for change–and possibly understanding. America was confronted with scenes of racial strife and disturbed by the polarity that resulted; there lay a basis for discussion and debate. How can there be change until the two forces, black and white, come together and seek to understand each other?

Art is an effective medium, and the traveling exhibit “In the Eye of the Storm: An Art of Conscience, 1930-1970–Selections From the Collection of Philip J. and Suzanne Schiller” crashes into your psyche in much the same way that last year’s two polarizing events did. Both black and white artists make riveting, passionate statements on social issues that have confronted our country since the Great Depression, including poverty, McCarthyism, antiwar movements, civil rights, segregation and African-American spirituality.

In a particularly poignant section titled “Prayer Meetings and Lynchings: African-American Straggles for Self-Definition and Survival,” black artists Joseph Delaney and Jacob Lawrence draw from scenes from their childhood; white artists George Biddle, Palmer Schoppe, Louis Lozowick and Joe Jones look at black religious life and racism. Below each of the artworks and captions that follow, all of which are from the “Prayer Meetings and Lynchings” section, Lawrence shares his views of the works. Lawrence is the only black artist in this exhibition who is still alive to comment on its significance.

“Other people are looking at us,” he says. “This is the way they see us, and this is the way they portray us. It doesn’t make a difference in my judgment of the works, but I find it interesting that many of the statements come from nonblack artists–that this is the way that they see their time, certain people in their time, and certain cultural events taking place in their time.

“The entire exhibit is based on sensitivity and insight. If we take all the works together, I think they say a lot. They have al lot of passion, a lot of feeling, much sensitivity to the human condition. I also think they go beyond the ethnic in many of the works. It’s just not at)out an ethnic thing here; it deals with people.

“I think it’s a wonderful title, by the way: `In the Eye of the Storm.’ A brilliant title.”

“Spirituals,” 1937, by George Biddle

In this painting one can see the same mix of Italian Renaissance art and contemporary social concerns that marked the Mexican murals Biddle so admired. The strong profiles and muscled necks of the two right-hand figures call to mind the sibyls in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. The gentle arc of the singers’ heads suggests the rise and fall of the gospel music coming from their throats, The range of expressions and skin colors gives each figure an individuality that counters the racial stereotyping often present in representations of African Americans. At the same time, their compositional unity evokes a sense of cohesion. The figures are placed not inside a church, but rather in a rural landscape rising and falling in harmony with the figures’ heads.

Jacob Lawrence: “‘Spirituals’ makes an impact. It’s a good work, a very good work, but it doesn’t tell a story in the same way as `White Justice’ [see right]. To a person from another culture, another time, another place, I don’t think what Biddle was saying would come through. I think you’d have to know the history. You’d have to know what spirituals are and what they mean to people. But I think it’s a beautiful painting.”

“Street Scene–Restaurant,” 1936-38, by Jacob Lawrence.

This is one of Lawrence’s earliest professional works. It is not just any street scene, but one that contains the propositioning of a white man by a black woman. She can be identified as a prostitute through her posture, her clothes, and the company she keeps (the other two women). The nervous expression on the man’s face, his glance over his shoulder, and his hand in his pants pocket suggest not only that he has come to pay for the services of these women, but also that he knows he has ventured into potentially hostile territory (both as a white man in an African-American neighborhood and as someone engaged in an illegal activity). The women are there to serve his sexual needs, but Lawrence, in a seemingly casual and humorous way, invests them with an air of self-confidence and power that suggests that they are the ones with the upper hand in this situation.

RELATED ARTICLE: “Revival,” 1940, by Joseph Delaney

Using a fluid and exaggerated style, Delaney captures the emotional power of religion for the family in the center of the composition. The gas lamps appear to float above the heads of the figures, a literalization of the “light of Christ.” There is also a tension between, on the one hand, the central male figure’s upturned face and expressive gesture encompassing the woman and children to his right and, on the other, the downturned gaze and self-contained pose of the woman. The figure on the far right also encloses the man next to him with his left arm. There is thus expressed in these gestures a sense of both enclosure and release, of support and enlightenment.

Jacob Lawrence: “I think you would have to know what the revival is before you understand it. You’d almost have to know the church; you’d have to know what’s behind it, what motivated the artist to do it. You’d have to know what it meant to certain people under certain conditions, in certain times. But I think it’s a very moving painting. It’s very alive; it’s aesthetically good work.”

RELATED ARTICLE: “American Justice” (“White Justice”), 1933, by Joe Jones

This painting is a stark contrast to Jacob Lawrence’s presentation of self-confident African-American prostitutes [see page 18]. It graphically portrays what is absent (yet understood) in Lawrence’s treatment of sexual relations between white men and black women: the rape and murder of black women by white slave owners and, after the end of slavery, by members of white vigilante organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. That the woman in Jones’ painting has been raped as well as murdered is suggested by her half-naked body, the draped phallic forms of the Klansmen, and the Klan member’s torch at the right edge of the crowd, held as if an extension of his penis. Here sexuality is clearly implicated in the relations between whites and blacks.

Jones also integrates the theme of white-black relations into his work in formal terms. Stark white highlights (the Klansmen’s robes, the woman’s upturned eyes, the sheet that covers the lower half of her body, the noose hanging from the tree, the chest of the dog, and the tree itself) are everywhere countered by rich browns (the torso and legs of the woman’s body, the back of the dog, the bottom of the lynching tree, and the earth in the center of the canvas).

While the foreground figure may comment ironically on Western artistic traditions–the reclining nude in the landscape, the partially draped classical figure that often symbolizes abstract notions like peace and justice–the woman is, above all, dead, a victim of white vigilante mob violence.

Jacob Lawrence: “`White Justice’ is a strong piece, very poignant; it has a lot of depth and feeling to it. It’s a part of our culture. You’re dealing with symbols here. There’s the Klan symbol; there’s the lynching rope; there’s fire. I think a person not knowing what this painting is all about would understand it to a greater degree than they would the Joe Delaney work, which doesn’t bring symbols that we can all read into the painting. I don’t know how important that is, but that’s the way I look at the paintings and read the symbols. I would like to think that I bring the same sort of observation or thinking or passion to my works.”

RELATED ARTICLE: “Interior Scene,” 1937, by Jacob Lawrence

This painting continues the narrative begun in “Street Scene”; the white customer has entered the brothel and done his business. Lawrence’s treatment of prostitution in this painting is surprisingly matter-of-fact and lacking in prurient detail. Rather than foregrounding the splayed, naked body of one of the female sex workers, Lawrence focuses on the business and paraphernalia of the sex industry. He notes the condoms on the bed and in the pocket of one of the johns; the rats, both dead and alive (and both white and black); the flies buzzing around the lamp and the basin containing a red cloth or liquid; the fumigator on the table to deal with the flies; the painting of the Caucasian lactating Madonna, an ironic commentary on the role of women as nurturers and on the virgin/whore dichotomy so often used to separate white and black women; the money the woman on the bed slips into the top of her nylon stocking; the black heads peeking through the window. The painting is both humorous and matter-of-fact. It counters both the romantic fantasies and the brutal satires that were the more common modes of representing female sexuality, white and black.

Jacob Lawrence: “I first arrived in Harlem in 1930, when I was 13 years of age, and it was a revelation to me–the things I was seeing in the Harlem community–and my content consisted of that visual experience. I did parades and tenements and street scenes. This is one of the experiences that came out of the period. I didn’t paint it when I was 13; I was 20 years of age when I painted those works. Did I have an intellectual thought in doing the works? I would say no; it’s just a visual experience.”

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