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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Silencing the Voices

July is BIPOC Mental Health Month (formerly known as Minority Mental Health Month). It is the perfect time to shine a light on Beauford's epic struggle to deal with his inner voices - the voices that drove him to attempt suicide and fueled the expression of his creative genius.

(1970) Gouache on paper
Collection of David A. Leeming
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

Biographer David Leeming mentions Beauford's voices several times in Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney. As early as the first page of the first chapter of the biography, he talks about "the inner voices that in the early years only teased him [Beauford] but later gradually took over his mind." He indicates that Beauford began hearing whispering "voices of despair" while living in Knoxville and says that Beauford's only defense against them was his art.

Leeming says that by 1958, Beauford's purpose for painting shifted from attempting to ward off the voices to capturing their essence. Beauford wrote to his friend, Larry Wallrich, that year to say that he was "still trying to bring together color compositions from the strange and many-faceted thing that is my life."

Beauford's voices became more active and aggressive when he traveled. During his trip to Greece in July 1961, they taunted and threatened him mercilessly, until he jumped overboard from the ship on which he sailed from Brindisi to Patras. Fortunately, the ship was docked at Patras and Beauford was rescued (he could not swim). He was briefly hospitalized and through arrangements made by the American Consultate, he traveled to Athens, where he was met by someone from the U.S. Embassy. In the hotel room that had been reserved for him there, his voices berated and threatened him again, and he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with a penknife. He was taken to the Embassy and authorities there had him admitted to a mental hospital.

Darthea Speyer, a devoted friend and patron, had organized Beauford's trip to Greece. She was notified of what happened and had Beauford moved to a private clinic, where he stayed for several weeks. She then organized his return to Paris, which took place on August 21, 1961.

Beauford's friends did their best to support him during the remainder of the summer and fall, but he remained physically and mentally fragile. Thanks to the intervention of Mme Solange du Closel and Dr. Ahmed Bioud, two dear friends, he was admitted to the psychiatric clinic at Nogent-sur-Marne in December 1961. Mme du Closel and her husband then purchased the apartment that Beauford would use as a studio upon his release from the clinic until he was permanently committed to Hôpital Sainte-Anne in 1975.

Beauford and James Baldwin
at Sainte Anne's Hospital, 1976
Photo by Max Petrus

Beauford had several "episodes" between his release from the Nogent clinic and his admission to Sainte Anne's Hospital. Leeming's most vivid description of these pertains to the one that he personally witnessed in 1966, when James Baldwin charged him with fetching Beauford from Paris and driving him to Istanbul. Beauford could only find relief from the voices if Leeming lay in bed with him:

"I got into his cot with him and together, in each other's arms, we held off the voices, which by now, I had begun to hear, too."

Richard A. Long, the friend of Beauford who organized the 1978 retrospective of Beauford's work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, wrote that Beauford's works from the Clamart years (1956-1961) were characterized by a

"frequent overtone of melancholy, imposed either by a somber palette or by the sheer power of clashing color-masses. Interspersed with these are the occasional journeys into blinding yellow and pink light..."

I don't know that Beauford's Clamart works frequently express melancholy, but I have noted that several works dated 1958 through 1961 are quite dark and brooding. I'll present images of some of these in next week's blog.

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