A Fresh Look at History

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“Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp” by Thomas Moran

A friend wanted to see “Civil War and American Art” at the Metropolitan Museum. This is why we have friends. To get us to do things we might not otherwise do.  (Peer pressure at age 53?) Being a painter interested in landscape, color, and issues of representation, I wasn’t sure that an afternoon of looking at b/w photos and battlefield paintings  was going to be my cup of tea.

HOWEVER, it turned  out that “The Civil War and American Art” was actually all about landscape, color, and issues of representation. It is a very lively exhibit of interesting paintings and yes, some exquisite early black and white photography mostly of piles of dead bodies in culverts and ditches. Including a final room of massive Frederich Church fantasy landscape paintings, there were many painting surprises in this exhibit. “Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp” pictured above by Thomas Moran stopped me in my tracks with it’s exquisite color. A black couple carrying an infant are pictured in an almost psychedelic dismal swamp environment that dwarfs the struggling family and brings to vivid life what it must have been like to try to struggle through the vast unchartered natural environment with little more than the clothes on your back. The painting of the undergrowth, the savage tree stumps rearing high overhead, and the dense jungle-like environment stretching back into obscure darkness prevented me from even noticing in the museum that a slave hunting party is visible way off in the distance beyond a pack of leaping wolf-like creatures that pose a closer and more immediate threat to the struggling family. The slaves and the creatures are not what is great is about this painting. Close inspection of the figures proved slightly disappointing, but the tangle of natural shapes painted in critical spots to contrast across the color wheel from each other was really something. A jagged tree stump is edged in an electric light green so as to really stand out against the darker background. Being shockingly unschooled in art history for someone with not only a BFA, but also an MFA in Fine Art, I couldn’t recall having any knowledge of Thomas Moran. It turns out that he  is considered to be one of the Hudson River School Painters and also a “Rocky Mountain School Painter” as his landscape work included many western landscapes.

Equally attention-grabbing were the paintings of Eastman Johnson. These paintings caught my attention less for his actual painting technique, though that was extremely competent, but more for his consistent acumen with selection of subject matter. “A Ride For Liberty _ The Fugitive Slaves” portrays an entire slave family (parents and two small children) astride a magnificent dark horse galloping through a somewhat vague eerily lit landscape. He had a knack for finding the iconic view of the issues of his time, even when they were rather complex. Take for example, “Negro Life and the South” painted in 1859. It is a complex view of the back yard of slaves quarters positioned right up against the masters’ house. A dozen or so black and mulatto figures of various ages (but mostly young) are pictured idling  and “hanging out”. A white-appearing woman is slipping out of the wealthier quarters to join the scene. The curatorial line of the Museum was that various elements of the painting were symbols of the real intent of the painting. A  white cat is slipping throug an open window into an open upstairs window of the slave quarters. A ladder is positioned from the roof of the slave quarters to the upstairs window of the master’s house.  The painting portrays the illicit “intercourse” between slave and master…the evidence visible in the light brown skin of many of the children.

The exhibition affirms the power of art, and painting,not only to portray with drama and empathy what is going on in a culture, but to ask important ethical and political questions in a fun and colorful way that people can get seduced into wanting to answer.

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2 thoughts on “A Fresh Look at History

  1. How might painters today reflect and comment on the issues of today? Who is currently painting as a societal critic? Does your “trash painting” provide an example? Thanks for sharing. Dad

    • A few painters come to my mind: Vic Muniz, Gerhard Richter, Leon Golub. Muniz uses garbage and has even worked within the garbage industry to create art; Golub pictured larger than life soldiers painted in an intimate and ugly sort of way. Richter’s social commentary is more obscure, but may stand the test of time the best of them all. His work is more visually analytical…how and what we choose to picture…I’d like to think of a female example but can’t right now.

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