Sunday, February 19, 2017

Charles White, by Maggie Wang

Charles White, 1918 – 1979, was born in the South Side of Chicago to his parents, a maid and a construction worker. He grew up in poverty, and much of his art learning was self taught – drawing on shirts, cardboard, blinds; he snuck into public classes of the Art Institute of Chicago, learning to mix paint and stretch canvas.  Evan at the young age of 14, White was angered by the systemic racism in education, and how black contributions were often neglected or omitted entirely, and began to skip school to instead letter small Black publications, and won the chance to take a weekend class at the Institute.  White became heavily influenced here to recognize the “beauty of black people”, and the movement of Alain Locke – the New Negro. The New Negro movement saw a desire for cultural reciprocity, for both blacks and white to learn and grow with each other.

One of the most influential periods of White’s life was as the Works in Progress Administration artist, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, 1929-1943.  This movement favored figurative art, rather than abstract art.  Here, White’s style of Social Realism became solidified.  Through monumental prints, murals, bold black lines and striking contrasts, White highlighted the humanity, beauty, and pride of Black America.  His work is primarily black, white, or sepia drawings and lithographs.  His scenes often depicted African-American history in the United States, socio-economic struggles, human relationships, and portraits, often emotional and striking lines on the face, exaggerating facial expressions.

I chose this artist because I loved the nature of his line work, the bold, loud nature of his art.  His art called for social justice through highlighting the inherent beauty of blacks, showcasing the strength and pride, and humanity through these portraits. And White’s passion for art and his perseverance to teach himself how to draw in the face of so much adversity and lack of opportunity really was admirable.

The stories behind each piece add so much more to the art, and the way White participated in political discourse and activism was really interesting to think about.  As artists, how should I incorporate my work into the larger community, to give back and work with issues in society? 


His work up until the 1940’s represented direct calls of injustice and stories of the black people.  

Figure 2 - Five Great American Negroes

This swirling composition brings together the lives of five different prominent black activists leading the charge out of slavery, emphasizing the triumph and power they hold.  On the left, Sojourner Truth is depicted with power, large hands, and bare feet, with large sweeping brushstrokes, highlighting a sense of movement and progress away from slavery.  Her hands are pointing towards Booker T Washington, behind whom stands Frederick Douglass hugging a runaway slave.  The multitude and richness of colors depicted here bring a sense of life, of change and of hope for agitation for change through these strong figures throughout history.

In the 1940’s, White’s style shifted to representing blacks as dignified subjects and empathetic, hoping to relate to the broader working class.

Figure 3 - The Embrace

The Embrace’s artistic style becomes tighter in composition, with muted colors, with sad faces, ripped clothing.  But the strength is still there in the muscular nature of the limbs, the solidarity and comfort of friendship.  The piece nature of the art also shows elements of Cubism.  The landscape is barren, no light, yet not fully dark.  The brush strokes smooth, but the color contrast offers a sense of angularity.

This piece is one of the most memorable pieces of art I’ve seen.  White used ink and graphite to depict the false arrest and imprisonment of six black men, where a 73-year-old shopkeeper was brutally murdered; leaving behind a witness who vaguely stated some black men had done it.  Black neighborhoods were terrorized and harassed, and without evidence or proper questioning, and convicted.

This poignant image of the six men falsely incarcerated for the color of their skin, standing behind the wire fence, as a woman lawyer advocates for their release and innocence, uses the distortion of features to create a sense of pleading and despair.  The clear highlights emphasize the eyes, of how light hits black skin differently than white, and of the social injustice White feels so deeply for.  I really loved his portraits, which felt real and powerful.  Each one of his pieces hold roots in history, in telling stories of injustice, and rooted in black history.

In both The Embrace, and The Trenton Six, as well as numerous other pieces from the 1940’s White uses a similar face in all his portraits to depict the commonality of humanity.

One of White’s final and major shifts towards a different style came in 1966, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act had become law, but violence was still erupting.  In this period, White primarily considered blacks as victims of injustice.

Figure 5 - Print, Archives of American Art

Figure 6 - Print, Archives of American Art
The distortion of proportions, with the large body swathed in protective clothing, hiding the black body.  The faces are much smaller, impassive expressions, but the overall feeling is one of strength and power.

Figure Five in particular is interesting, as her eyes are clouded, and unfocused on anything in particular.  Her sheer size offers a sense of importance, like the matriarch leading a family, in dignity and serenity.  The clock is heavy and thick, like a comfort blanket wrapped to protect, to heal, to hide the hurt of history.

Figure Six shows this young man mid step, with branches hanging over his head, just touching them.  His pose seems anxious, and about to run, or move, as White really made the large overcoat have a sense of swinging motion.  White's use of highlights really was intentional and good.

"Charles White." Heritage Gallery, 2010, Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.
James, Erica Moiah. "Charles White's J'Accuse and the Limits of Universal Blackness." Archives of American Art, vol. 55, no. 2, Nov. 2015, pp. 5-25.

No comments:

Post a Comment