Friday, July 20, 2012

Murals by Hale Woodruff: The Heart of Technique

On "teacher's day" at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, my friend Susan and I got a free pass to see murals created in 1938 by Hale Woodruff of Atlanta for Talladega College of Alabama, built for -- and by -- "freedmen" in 1867.   Thanks to the High's staff, we saw techniques that Woodruff learned from his teachers before he put them to use in works that expressed his own big heart.

Pride of place and publicity went to the first panel of one triptych, a life-size depiction of mutiny on the Amistad, ca. 1830.   Striking for the drama it depicts, the panel is also interesting for elements that we can trace back to Woodruff's student works exhibited in the ante-chamber to the murals. 

The human figures are composed in a swirl of action, reminiscent of a forest landscape that Woodruff painted years earlier, in which trees arch above and ground bows below to encircle the scene. Even the brush strokes swirl in a vortex.  In the Amistad scene, the effect is more complex, as the subgroup of men struggling left of center seems to be an eddy spinning off from the circular composition.  The black man facing front is modeled on a life-based portrait of Cinque, leader of the rebellion.  His face stands out in part because it breaks the swirling motion, and in part because of the intensity of his expression.

The black men's faces and their skin glow like burnished wood or copper.  That same warm glow is something that Woodruff used in the first painting of the exhibit, his experiment with landscaping a la Cezanne, in which clouds above and solid objects below all glow with the sheen of taffeta.

Burnished wood also comes to mind because the black men's faces resemble certain African masks, though without the full stylization seen in Woodruff's early Cubist experiment, a depiction of black men playing cards.  One gambler has the pronounced forehead and brooding face of an African mask, all the features concentrated in a small angle above the chin.

As in that cubist homage, different perspectives jostle up against each other.   The ocean waves and even the bow of the ship might be a 2D backdrop, and most of the actors seem to be lined up downstage.  Woodruff's Cubist experiment was jarring and unpleasant; here, the effect appears natural in the Amistad scene, and it invigorates the drama.

One black man stretches, dead, across the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. The image is reminiscent of some stark black-and-white prints exhibited in the ante-room.  They depict lynching, black prisoners at work, and shacks.  Considering the great size of his murals in the next room, it's instructive to see how Woodruff squeezes so much onto hand-sized pages. 

The other panels depict the trial, in which the Amistad rebels were found to be free men, unjustly forced into slavery; and the scene of departure, some of the men for Africa, and some for a new life in the western territory that would ultimately bring about the founding of Talladega College.

Another triptych shows the story of Talladega's founding.  These murals in the same style are less dramatic but more big-hearted.   Again, there's a backdrop, this one showing a sweeping view of cleared land and a horse-carriage racing away towards Ohio.  The most prominent figures are black men emerging from slave territory to the point where they can see Ohio and freedom.   One stands tall, his face expressing such gratitude and hope that our hearts go out to him; at his feet, another rests on one knee, eyes downcast, perhaps in prayer, or weariness, or in relief.   (Woodruff could not have anticipated that it's the same tilt of head and position of hands that we see nowadays wherever cellphone users are intent on texting.)  

Two other panels show freedmen enrolling at Talladega, and the construction of the library.  Especially in that last panel, Woodruff captures a great deal of action in one plane along with a spirit of hope and goodwill.

The High Museum pairs these glowing, feel-good murals with an exhibition of photographs taken around the American South during the past few years.  These, too, provoke smiles -- sometimes at irony, mostly at incongruities, and sometimes at appealing personalities that we can sense at a glance.  One that combines both personality and incongruity is a wooded landscape, early morning mist hovering above the long grass.  In the middle distance, a somewhat rumpled young man (just out of bed? or up all night?) looks away from us into the woods.  In the morning quiet, he carries a banjo.

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