What Happens When Art History Gets Refigured

A museum in Seattle shows the incredible power of subverting the traditional course of representation

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook
George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975, Robert Colescott, acrylic on canvas Private collection, Saint Louis, © 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Jean Paul Torno

Born in Germany in 1816, Emanuel Leutze came to the United States as a child, later to become known as the painter behind one of the most iconic paintings of American history. His Washington Crossing the Delaware is part of a grand history of our nation’s penchant for myth-making. A classic example of the type of art known as “history painting,” when elites commissioned works to commemorate events that defined national identity, Leutze’s work centers George Washington as the father of the United States.

But in an exhibition in Seattle called Figuring History, the late African-American artist Robert Colescott provides a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the painting. The Oakland, California, native places George Washington Carver, the agricultural pioneer at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, in the spot of his namesake. Colescott surrounds the central image of Carver with Aunt Jemima figures and African-American cooks and banjo players. Sparing no one, he makes fun here of multiple stereotypes, both Leutze’s iconic image of a white American hero and pejorative depictions of African-Americans.

Lowery Stokes Sims—co-curator of a Colescott exhibition scheduled to open at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati next year--writes in the catalogue for the Seattle exhibit that Colescott uses “satire and parody of art-historical masterpieces with the idea of interjecting black people into art history and tricking us into a conversation about what constitutes the art-historical canon.”

That theme of redefining mainstream narratives of history and representation holds throughout Figuring History, an exhibition of 26 works by three successive generations of African-American artists: Colescott, Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas.

Catharina Manchanda, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, said she began thinking about the ideas of history and representation in art during the Obama administration. “All of a sudden we found ourselves presented with the historical importance of his presidency, and at the same time questions about race in every aspect of everyday life became part of an active public conversation,” she said.

The paintings in the exhibition cast light on unexpected, fresh depictions of African-Americans by African-Americans. From the earliest days of art museums, curators exhibited more traditional works featuring more traditional subjects, and the Seattle Art Museum ideally represents a departure from that.

Another Colescott work has a similar effect to his satire of Washington Crossing the Delaware. His Natural Rhythm: Thank You Jan Van Eyck (1976) satirizes the Dutch painter’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait. The original shows Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, holding hands with his wife, who despite appearances is actually not pregnant but is holding up her full-skirted dress in the then-contemporary fashion. In Colescott’s version, the wife is replaced by an African-American woman who adopts the same pose of Arnolfini’s wife, her free left hand draped across her full skirt. Colescott here spoofs modern viewers’ inaccurate interpretation of van Eyck’s original painting as well as clichéd views of African-American birth control practices.

For Marshall, born in Alabama, raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and working today in Chicago, his art, in a variety of media, addresses “issues of black identity both in the United States today and in the canon of Western art,” as the catalogue states.

Souvenir I
Souvenir I, 1997, Kerry James Marshall, acrylic, collage, and glitter on unstretched canvas Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund, 1997.73, © MCA Chicago, photo: Joe Ziolkowski

His 1997 Souvenir I--in which a mysterious black figure sporting gold glitter wings tends to a flower arrangement in a classically furnished room--contains small portraits of Martin Luther King and John F. and Robert Kennedy, as well as images of heroes and martyrs of the civil rights and Black Power movements. Sims believes “the prominence and outsize presence of these images reveal the intensity of private remembrances of public aspects of black history and (s)hero worship.” While MLK and the Kennedys represent figures one would traditionally find in a history painting, their depiction in Marshall’s work is far more whimsical while still illustrating their significance to African-Americans.

In another of his works on exhibit, “School of Beauty, School of Culture”, Marshall, says Sims, “channels the raucous atmosphere of 17th century Dutch genre painting” by creating a powerful compilation of vignettes of African-American women and men hairdressing, posing and conversing. What was previously a genre painting depicting an ordinary scene from domestic life now gets subverted with a modern twist.

Thomas, the youngest of the three artists, was born in 1971 and lives in Brooklyn. She creates art that employs materials such as rhinestones, acrylic and enamel and uses pop culture references from eras historic and modern to explore “how identify, gender, beauty and power are defined and represented in contemporary culture,” the catalogue says.

Her Le dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires—a riff on Edouard Manet’s 1863 Le dejeuner sur l’herbe--features three reclining African-American women, all clothed in printed garments, unlike the nude woman who reclines in Manet’s painting. The demeanor of the women in both paintings is “challenging, as if the viewer had interrupted a private conversation,” Sims writes. And Thomas’ 2017 Resist, also in the show, contains what Sims describes as a “dazzling assemblage of appropriated images from the civil rights movement, scene after scene of confrontations between demonstrators and police.”

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, © Mickalene Thomas

Manchanda, who grew up in Germany and was born not far from where Leutze was born, said the subject of history in her native country was “never celebratory. It was always flawed with difficulties. But this is why the subject needs to be interrogated. History is composed of many histories told from different vantage points.”

To Machanda, although Colescott, Marshall and Thomas all comment in their art on the larger American society in which they live and work, each does so in a unique way. She said she hopes the exhibition “frames the question of who is figuring history, who frames history, who is present in its accounts, but also, how do we square, reassess and go forth with the artistic, social and political histories that we have all inherited?”

The three artists, Sims adds, “have found ingenious ways to exploit the canons of Eurocentric art history while fusing it with content that speaks to their concerns of exclusion and their determination to expand the parameters of that art history.”

Resist, 2017, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestones, acrylic, gold leaf, and oil stick on canvas mounted on wood panel © Mickalene Thomas

Just as Michelle Obama said she hoped her new portrait in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery by African-American artist Amy Sherald would inspire young girls of color who see it, Manchanda said the Seattle exhibition appears to deeply affect many visitors.

“There is anecdotal evidence that the guards frequently see people walk through the galleries crying. There’s a sense that people are very engaged, that they’re taking the subject matter very seriously,” she said.

“We’re hoping to frame a set of questions raised by figuring history, including who is given permission, who gives themselves permission to represent history and for whom? This is the beginning of a long list of questions we have to ask ourselves,” Manchanda explained.

And she believes Michelle Obama’s recent comments are yet another step in this process. “The fact that a former first lady is talking about the idea of representation means that there is a growing awareness and these concerns are entering the mainstream. If that is the case, something very profound is happening,” she said.

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