Clark Atlanta University Art Collection: Ivory Tower or Battlefield?

Perhaps this is old news to many, but Atlanta Art Blog insists on repeating the news: There’s a luscious book out about Clark Atlanta University’s collection of art!

It’s called In the Eye of the Muses, is edited by Tina Dunkley, and contains beautiful color plates displaying the art that the University has collected over the past seventy years.

Enough said.

No, not yet.

Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta) began collecting the art in conjunction with holding its . . . . brace yourself for a string of adjectives . . . . annual national juried art competition and exhibition. That event came to an end in 1970, the year that the jury was all black for the first time at this all black competition.

“The Black Knight,” by Geraldine McCullough. The image above is a scan from the book, which was published by Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.

“The Black Knight,” by Geraldine McCullough. The image above is a scan from the book, which was published by Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.

In the Eye of the Muses documents the competition and the purchases that the University made in connection with the event. The annual shows started in 1942, founded by Hale Woodruff, who taught at the University’s Laboratory High School.

Famous artists who participated in the annual event included Woodruff, Elizabeth Catlett, and John Woodrow Wilson.

In addition to the book’s richly visual format that displays many artworks concerned with the racial justice issues of the 1940’s and ’50’s, its essays provide interesting background information concerning the tribulations surrounding the collection.

The book includes a highly readable piece by Jerry Cullum on Hale Woodruff’s mural, “The Art of the Negro,” with illustrations of studies by Woodruff. The image above is a scan from the book, which was published by Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.

The book includes a highly readable piece by Jerry Cullum on Hale Woodruff’s mural, “The Art of the Negro,” with illustrations of studies by Woodruff. The image above is a scan from the book, which was published by Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.

At times the passions and battles that the artists tackled present a contrast with the accompanying essays. The essays take a scholarly tone, while the artists’ work frequently burns with the struggles of the mid-twentieth century.

Since the publisher is the Clark Atlanta University Galleries, we can expect the book’s voices to carry scholarly tones. But to read the essays closely reveals the scholars’ passion for their subject.

An example is found in Tina Dunkley’s introductory essay, where she briefly discusses two Time magazine reviews of the annual show, the first in 1945, and the second in 1951. The book reprints both reviews, which used racialist terms such as “savage” and “primitive” to describe the art. Dunkley coolly notes that the Time reviews failed to address the artworks’ style or content.

But her strong engagement with this history comes forth when she writes that, had the competing artists renounced “scenes of violence, psychological oppression, and subjugation in favor of a more presumed-to-be, self-absorbed expression,” their works would have been “tantamount to betrayal.” She qualifies her statement by saying this would have been true “for many black artists.”

The book’s editors do not shy away from the questions surrounding the negroes-only show, which was judged by all-white juries, and boycotted by Romare Bearden.

Good book.

In the Eye of the Muses, published by Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries in 2012.

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