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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Beauford Delaney’s Balzac by Rodin

By Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

An interesting study in form and color, Balzac by Rodin is an oil painting Beauford completed circa 1968, which depicts a statue that Rodin made in memory of the French novelist, Honoré Balzac.

This painting is a beautiful exploration of color blocking and composition. In the foreground, Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac is in the center left. It is defined by thick lines of green and fushia pink, with occasional blobs of yellow dotting Balzac’s torso. Beauford’s view is lower than the sculpture; viewers are looking up at Balzac’s upturned face. Hills of solid green and orange ramble throughout the background of the painting underneath a pink-white sky with an amorphous blue form dotting the surface. Two trees flank Rodin’s sculpture, one of which bends slightly, giving the impression that this was painted on a windy day.

The subject of the painting is a curious choice. The history of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture is intriguing, not just in and of itself, but also for Rodin’s methods in creating a portrait. It is possible Beauford admired the work of art not just for its aesthetic attributes, but also for how it related to his own ideas of portraiture.

Balzac by Rodin
(ca. 1968) Oil on canvas
24 x 19 1/2 in (61x50 cm)
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
(Fair use claim)

Monument to Balzac is a sculpture Auguste Rodin created between 1892 and 1897 in memory of Balzac. The work of art was commissioned by the Société des Gens de Lettres in 1891, and Rodin was given 18 months to finish the project. Instead, he took seven years. The sculptor became enamored with the novelist and devoured all of his literature. He also extensively researched Balzac’s personality, an approach taken by the writer himself when developing characters for his novels. Rodin traveled to Balzac’s hometown and completed dozens of portrait studies to achieve the writer’s likeness.

Monument to Balzac, 1898
Musée Rodin, Paris
Photo by Beyond My Ken
Creative Commons License

However, by the end of the project in 1898, Rodin explained that likeness to his subject was not his ultimate goal. Through his readings, voyages and studies, Rodin set out to capture the inner essence, the persona, of Honoré Balzac, rather than physical likeness.

In a letter composed at the completion of the sculpture, Rodin said:

“The only thing I realize today is that the neck is too strong. Through the exaggerated neck I wanted to represent strength. I realize that the execution exceeded the idea.”

When the sculpture was presented at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, critics found it to be too grotesque and garish. Despite the backlash, Rodin’s contemporaries - Paul Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and Claude Monet - supported the artist and what he had set out to do.

Monument to Balzac is a symbol in art history for Rodin’s approach to portraiture. Creating a sculpture in Balzac’s image became less about capturing his features to a painstakingly accurate degree, and more about encapsulating the subject’s essence.

It is possible that Beauford painted Rodin’s sculpture because he saw it as an important icon in the Parisian landscape. More likely than not though, he appreciated and admired Rodin’s method of creating Balzac’s portrait. While Beauford never took seven years to extensively research the subjects of his own paintings, he had a strong point of view about how he wanted to portray those sitting for him. He cared less about depicting facial characteristics accurately, and more about making visible the subjects’ inner personalities and characters.

Beauford’s portraits were testaments of love to those he painted and drew - his friends, family, and public figures he admired. Auguste Rodin’s sculpture was in much the same way a declaration of admiration and appreciation for Honoré Balzac as an artist and person. In painting Balzac by Rodin, perhaps Beauford was expressing a kinship felt for his artistic predecessor and simultaneously paying homage to both Rodin and Balzac.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Beauford Delaney’s Man in African Dress

By Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

Of the dozens of portraits completed by Beauford Delaney throughout his lifetime, many portray anonymous subjects that have yet to be identified. Man in African Dress, an oil painting completed in 1972, depicts a black man in a pastel-striped African garment ensemble sitting on a red chair with his legs spread wide and his hands perched on either armrest. Surrounding him are abstracted shapes of green and yellow, forms that could be interpreted as foliage - part an outdoor setting.

Man in African Dress, c. 1972
Oil on canvas
21 ¾” x 17 ¾”/ 55.2 x 45.1 cm
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC
New York, NY

The man stares straight at the viewer with slightly furrowed eyebrows; he looks stoic and intimidating. Despite the deep hues of browns, greens, and yellows Beauford used in the man’s face and arms, his physical body becomes background to his vibrant, and dynamic striped clothing. The lines of pink, blue, green, and yellow vary in thickness and bend with the movement of the man’s seated position. The lively dynamism of the African dress, juxtaposed against the man’s tranquil body language, becomes the focal point of this painting.

One of the most beautiful juxtapositions within Man in African Dress is the yellow line on the right leg of the man contrasted with the red of his seat. Such a bright color next to the solid red hue emphasizes the proud nature of the man and his regal chair. The vivid pastels on someone with such stately bearing begs the question of his identity and his country of origin. It is unclear whether the man in the portrait is someone Beauford knew personally in Paris, or an invention of his mind, oil paints and paintbrush. What is immediately understandable from this portrait though, is the story and point of view he was trying to convey regarding the subject. The man in African dress sits tall and strong, his stance and facial expression conveying the fact that he is assured in who he is and where he comes from.

Newlyweds on Holiday, 2016
Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper
63” x 41”
© Toyin Ojih Odutola
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
CLICK HERE to see full-sized image.

This charcoal and pastel drawing by Toyin Ojih Odutola, a contemporary artist, is reminiscent of Beauford’s Man in African Dress in its use of pattern and portrayal of the drawing’s subjects. Odutola was born in Nigeria and raised in Alabama. This particular drawing comes from a series she did of a fictional story surrounding two Nigerian families, one an ancient noble clan and the other made rich by trade and vineyards.

Odutola has garnered attention and critical acclaim not only for her treatment of her medium - she creates deeply complex and textured drawings with ballpoint pen and pastel - but also for her subject matter. In an interview with Vogue Magazine, she talks about how these drawings became an extended narrative on “wealth and nobility” in Nigeria, a way of wondering out loud what might have been possible in Africa if colonization had not occurred.

Every one of her drawings contain a myriad of patterns and textures that jump off the page and move with such fluidity that they seem to dance. In Newlyweds on Holiday, the faces of the two men are so rich in detail from the ballpoint pen that their furrowed, almost sour expressions are hidden by the deep darks and lights created. There are juxtapositions between patterns on every inch of the paper, from the suits of the men, to the carpet, to the floral wallpaper. Odutola has an extremely particular and talented eye for creating dynamic and engaging compositions.

Newlyweds on Holiday is an interesting work of art to compare to Man in African Dress. Created more than 40 years after Beauford’s oil painting, Odutola utilizes many of the same techniques Beauford did in a more contemporary artistic fashion. Both works of art depict African people in a similar manner. The man in Beauford’s paintings and the two in Odutola’s work are represented as majestic, proud and strong individuals. Pattern, in clothing and in surroundings, is used to highlight this fact. While the patterns in Beauford’s painting are those of traditional African dress, Odutola meditates on what Nigerian wealth and nobility would wear in modern times. The artists have differing narratives surrounding their respective works of art, yet their techniques to convey these points of view converge, creating a thread linking artwork being created in 2016 to Beauford’s production in 1972. Whether or not Odutola is aware of and was inspired by Beauford’s artwork directly, at least one other person has included the two artists’ work in an evaluation of similarly-themed paintings.

In Fall/Winter 2018/2019 edition of Pin Up Magazine, Tiana Webb Evans wrote “Folks on Chairs: African-American Home Life As Seen Through the Lens of Art.” In the article, she discusses how racial segregation and social alienation in the United States have led to an invisibility and lack of connection to African-American home life. She included eight works of art by black artists that feature black subjects sitting on chairs, most of which are found in interior spaces. Evans dissects how the chair is used to create a certain mood in the work of art, one that the viewer can understand and relate to. Beauford’s Man in African Dress is featured in this article along with Odutola’s A Grand Inheritance, a charcoal and pastel drawing of a person slouched on a red chair - one not so different from Beauford’s.

A Grand Inheritance, 2016
Charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper
© Toyin Ojih Odutola
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
CLICK HERE to see full-sized image.

Though Evans does not discuss Man in African Dress in her text, her use of the image invites certain comparisons to be made between Beauford’s work and that of the other artists featured in “Folks on Chairs.” The viewer / reader can see that Odutola’s A Grand Inheritance and Man in African Dress make statements on black identity through their use of pattern and color.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Parisian Café Culture and Beauford Delaney

By Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

Induction into the café scene in Paris has been a rite of passage for artists and intellectuals from around the world for over two centuries. A hub for heated discourse, the exchange of new ideas, and a place to build up your network of connections, cafés have been prominent pillars in French society since before the French Revolution.

Café Procope in 1743
Image in public domain

Coffee arrived in Western countries in the 17th century as a result of political and imperial expeditions. Consuming coffee was, at first, reserved for the dominant social classes. During the age of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, innovative ideas surrounding the political and social spheres in France were exchanged amongst revolutionaries over coffee and alcohol in salons littéraires. By 1909, Paris alone housed 30,000 cafés.

Such “micro-societies” remained at the forefront of fostering new schools of thought in the arts and politics throughout the twentieth century. Expats from other countries began to understand the importance of cafés in finding a community, from German avant-garde artists before World War I to the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s.

Members of the Lost Generation
The Murphys, Pauline Pfeiffer, and the Hemingways
Image in public domain

Beauford Delaney, an African-American Abstract Expressionist painter who traded his artistic life in New York for Paris in 1953, found solace and solidarity in the Parisian cafés he frequented until his death in 1979. It was during his first night in Paris, hungry and restless, that Beauford walked into the Dôme Café on the corner of rue Delambre and boulevard du Montparnasse, returning often after that point. This and other Parisian cafés in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Près became crucial to Beauford’s well-being and happiness throughout the 26 years he lived in the city.

As an African-American gay man who struggled intensely with his mental and emotional health, the various social circles that existed within the cafés dispersed throughout Paris offered a refuge for fraternity, stimulating conversation, and oftentimes a discounted or free meal when he couldn’t afford one himself as a impoverished painter. The community provided by Parisian café culture for artists and writers of all persuasions, and for African-American artists and writers in particular, was central to Beauford Delaney’s life and the birthplace for many valued relationships he cultivated during his time in France.

Coffee cup and sugar cube
Mickael Favier
Creative Commons License

The strong historical precedent for African-American presence in Paris cafés began in the aftermath of the First World War, when expats flocked to Montmartre for conversations with like-minded individuals. Tyler Stovall described this black experience in Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, stating that by 1919, musical opportunities for black jazz musicians were drying up in the US due to the wartime industrial boom coming to an end. Jazz was becoming wildly popular in France and in Paris, and for many African Americans who relocated, it was a quick way to gain fame and fortune. Montmartre in the 1920s was seen as Harlem transplanted, the jazz clubs being where black and white people alike went for a good time.

Places such as Le Grand Duc and Chez Florence, clubs owned by African Americans, became notorious not only amongst those in Montmartre, but other circles as well; Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation flocked to the area from Montparnasse, knowing it was where the best parties were occurring. Fitzgerald loved Ada Louise Smith (“Bricktop”), an African-American singer, so much that he included her in one of his fictional pieces and bragged about “discovering” her before his other friends.

Ada "Bricktop" Smith
1934 Carl Van Vechten
Image in public domain

The Flea Pit, a café in Montmartre, became a staple for African-American musicians. They would meet there at any point in the day to share a drink and each other’s company.

Quote about the Flea Pit
from Becoming American in Paris
Brooke L. Blower

While this era was not the first for African Americans in Paris or for café culture, it was a time where black creatives could thrive in spaces that were typically dominated by their white peers.

The black community that developed in Paris during the 20s was virtually destroyed as a result of the Depression and the Second World War, and many African Americans recrossed the Atlantic during the 1930s. The community slowly rebuilt itself in the 40s and 50s, this time across the Seine in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Herbert Gentry, an African-American painter who sailed to France with Beauford on the SS Liberté, said it best when he said that “it was the Americans who really made Montparnasse.”

Herb Gentry in Paris
c. 1949
Image courtesy of Mary Anne Rose

The artistic community on the Left Bank thrived after World War II. African-American artists and writers began holding court at many of the cafés the white expats and intellectuals frequented during the same period: the Closerie de Lilas, the Coupole, and Café de Flore. Café Tournon and Café Monaco, however, were spots known for its African-American following. Richard Wright and James Baldwin were among those who could be seen every day engrossed in conversation nursing a cup of coffee (or something stronger), and not getting as much writing or work done as they had anticipated. Paris Noir cites the journal of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a black South Carolina native who moved to Paris in 1958. She writes that two hours after landing, a “brother from Senegal” invited her to have coffee at Café Dupont in the 15th arrondissement. She was in awe at finding a “gang” so quickly after arriving.

Beauford Delaney was one of those Americans that made Montparnasse the lively, culturally rich environment that it was known for. The Dôme Café, the place he stumbled upon hours after arriving in Paris, became one of his usual haunts. He loved the Dôme for its affordable prices at the time, yet was often invited to the Coupole (the most expensive of the Montparnasse cafés at the time) as well by his European artist friends. Along with the Dôme and the Coupole, he could be spotted at Café de Flore and Café Tournon, popular spots for friends in his circle. He would spend hours at a table with them, doling out pieces of advice and sharing stories of his upbringing in Tennessee.

Beauford wrote on his adoration for Parisian café culture shortly after moving:

“Some of the cafés never closed. I had never seen such life and could not suppress an eagerness to join into this rhythm. . . . Nights and days we would come together at mealtimes and swap our various experiences or relate how this activity in life and art were fused, what this group or that group thought of this or that school of painting, writing, music.”

Through the relationships formed in Paris cafés, Beauford was being intellectually stimulated like never before, generating new ideas and beliefs surrounding art and the kind of work he wanted to produce. Even in his later years, when his delusions and paranoia were getting the better of him, he would walk into his favorite cafés confused and with little to no money. Patrons and diners alike loved Beauford though; he was a local café celebrity known for his sweet demeanor and constant words of wisdom. Someone would always be there to help him pay for a meal and to guide him home.

Café Floor
Creative Commons License

Beauford sailed to France never intending to stay longer than a few months. He fell into the rhythm of Montparnasse, teeming with creative and intellectual energy, and lived out the remaining 26 years of his life there. The café culture for artists in Paris is notorious throughout the globe, and Beauford Delaney is a longstanding symbol of the community and camaraderie synonymous with it.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Beauford Delaney and the Mysterious Odalisque

By Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

As a way to capture likeness or a moment in time, or to represent some key element regarding their identity and the art they create, self-portraits of visual artists date back hundreds of years. Beauford Delaney is known for his elegant and thoughtful portraits of others; he memorialized his friends and family through the loving nature in which he put paint down on the canvas. Alongside those around him, he represented his own face dozens of times throughout his career. His self-portraits are reflections of how he perceived himself outwardly and inwardly.

Self-Portrait with Odalisque, a painting completed in 1943, is a thought-provoking work of art in terms of the subject matter and the intentions behind it. The oil painting depicts Beauford seated on a stool in the lower right hand corner, a guitar in his lap. To his right, a few feet away, is a topless black woman lounging on a mattress. They are surrounded by trees and foliage, a body of water behind them. The portrait is done in a painterly manner - the brush strokes are visible and free, the colors lively and bright.

Untitled (Self-Portrait with Odalisque)
(c. 1943) Oil on panel
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator
Image courtesy of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

The original definition of an “odalisque” is a chambermaid in a Turkish seraglio. Seraglios were the living quarters of the women in Turkish households, and odalisques served the women and mistresses of the home. Beginning in the 19th century, many artists from Western civilizations began traveling to countries where odalisques lived - places dubbed “oriental”: The Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. Because of European political interests in “The Orient,” artists and writers from countries such as France and Great Britain became fascinated with the culture and aesthetics of Eastern civilizations that were worlds away from what they knew as familiar. Some of the most notorious and celebrated works by Eugène Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, two French 19th-century painters, were “oriental” scenes: Turkish baths, village scenes, and richly decorated interior spaces.

Odalisques became frequent subjects in such paintings, and the definition of their social standing and occupation took on new meanings through a Western lens as European artists depicted them as concubines or consorts to the wealthy men with whom they resided. From Ingres, to Picasso and Matisse later in the 20th century, it became common practice to represent these women as sultry and erotic, more often than not lounging on their sides naked and gazing at the viewer. Depictions of “oriental” scenes and people fascinated Western artists and viewers; the “exotic nature” of different ways of life allowed Europeans to both admire the aesthetics of certain things and judge practices that did not correspond with their Western values and beliefs.

Within the context of odalisques in the canon of art history, it is curious that Beauford would decide to depict such a figure in one of his paintings, let alone a self-portrait. During the 1940s, he was in New York City, in the midst of his Greene Street era, and animated works of art representing the scenes and objects he saw in his everyday life were often experiments in abstraction and use of color. It was during this time that Beauford was becoming increasingly interested in modern artists and the techniques they used, both the United States and abroad. A big fan of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, it is possible that he studied and admired their works with odalisques. Perhaps he painted the woman in his self-portrait to create an image of himself as a global modernist, one knowledgeable in the trend of “Orientalism” that had been prominent at the turn of the century.

Self-portraits are oftentimes explorations of new techniques for artists, a way to navigate new methods of creating art. Self-Portrait with Odalisque is more figurative and narrative than the abstract cityscapes and portraits Beauford was completing at the time, so he could have been experimenting with a new method of storytelling in his paintings.

As a gay man wary of sexual promiscuity and eroticism, it is unusual that Beauford would choose to depict a woman that was a symbol for such traits in Western art history. Before completing Dark Rapture (1941), his first portrait of James Baldwin, the girlfriend of Emile Capouya (the man who introduced Baldwin and Beauford) insisted that he paint a nude portrait of her. Beauford was always shy in the figure drawing classes he took at the Art Students’ League with regard to nude portraits and was relieved to know it was against the rules for black artists to be present when there was a white model. The presence of the odalisque, who is black, may be a nod to his painting experience with Emile’s girlfriend, or to the racist rules that were in place in artistic organizations at the time.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)
Edouard Manet
(1863) Oil on Canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Google Art Project - Image in Public Domain

The immediate comparison that comes to mind when viewing Self-Portrait with Odalisque is its similarities with Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), the ground-breaking painting by Edouard Manet. Producing an outcry from the Paris Salon for the distorted use of perspective and the “pornographic” scene of two business men with scantily-clad women, this painting became infamous in Manet’s time. Certain parallels between Beauford’s self-portrait and Manet’s scene are striking. Beauford’s disengagement with the woman is reminiscent of the dynamics among the figures of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe - the two business men seem to be oblivious of the two naked women accompanying them on the picnic. The setting of Manet’s painting, a forest with a body of water in the distance, appears in Beauford’s self-portrait as well.

Yet another compelling aspect to Beauford’s work of art is the space he and the woman are occupying. Is this an allusion to Manet, or did he have a specific location in mind, perhaps a special place from Knoxville or New York?

Beauford did not create art in a vacuum. He was entrenched in the political, social and artistic implications of the United States and Europe of the time, and Self-Portrait with Odalisque reflects many aspects of this reality. The painting is intriguing in that it raises more questions than answers when examined closely. A gorgeous exploration of color and painterly brushstrokes, it is peculiar in the context of his other works. Whether a way to put himself in the shoes of the modernist icons before him, or an exercise in painting the elusive nude female figure, the inclusion of the odalisque in this self-portrait is a fascinating choice with no clear rationale.