Forsyth Guest Lecturer Violet M. Showers Johnson

Text by Lynn C. McDaniel, Communications Specialist for the University Art Department

This past Thursday, February 21st, at our monthly brown bag lunch and lecture, Professor Violet M. Showers Johnson presented an extremely interesting lecture which she called Ambivalent Aesthetics: West Indians, Garveyites and the “New Negro Art” of the 1920s and 1930s.

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The Forsyth Learning Gallery was filled with guests, who listened as Professor Johnson discussed the emergence of the “New Negro”.  She explained that, following the Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, and the black migration to the Northern States, black people began questioning who they were.  Were they African?  Many black people came from places other than Africa (such as the West Indies), and many were born in America—a generation or two away from Africa.  Were they American?  Technically, yes, but they were culturally undervalued in a nation deemed to be “white, Euro-American.”  Were they slaves?  No, they had their freedom, and yet they were still looked upon as inferior and were segregated in society, even by the Northern black people, who considered them trouble-makers.

Photo of Professor Violet M Showers Johnson
Professor Violet M Showers Johnson

The 1920s and 1930s represented an age of vibrancy, energy and change.  It was the era of The Cotton Club and similar clubs in Harlem, where largely white audiences enjoyed shows performed by black entertainers.  Called “the Harlem Renaissance,” this period represented a time of growth and self-reflection for black people who asked themselves, “Who am I? What does it mean to be black?”  The “New Negro” discovered a newfound self- and racial-pride, and expressed that confidence through music, literature, theatre, dance and the arts.

In her description of what her presentation would be about, Professor Johnson stated, “The diverse creations of the New Negro Art validated and highlighted the African past of African Americans while situating them at the center of contemporary American life and culture.  At the same time that African American artists, scholars and activists were advocating this hybrid art movement, immigrants from Caribbean British colonies (the West Indies) were grappling with their multiple identities as British subjects and Blacks in America.  Nevertheless, as staunch adherents of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Jamaican Marcus Garvey, many West Indians were in the forefront of Black Nationalism and the celebration of black aesthetics. This presentation will describe, discuss and illustrate the immigrants’ conflicting encounters with American ‘New Negro Art’ while balancing imperial belonging and the Black immigrant experience.

Loïs Mailou Jones’ painting, Les Fetiches, 1938
Loïs Mailou Jones’ painting, Les Fetiches, 1938

Professor Johnson offered two examples of visual art which depicted the energy, vibrancy, and conflict of the “New Negro” movement.  The first, Loïs Mailou Jones’ painting, Les Fetiches, 1938, is a powerful painting of an African mask, which was a perfect symbol for this time of self-evaluation, question and discovery.

Aaron Douglas’ Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting, 1934
Aaron Douglas’ Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting, 1934

The second example was Aaron Douglas’ Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting, 1934, again, a vivid portrayal of dynamacism, joy and life that was evident in the “New Negro”.

Without question, the cultural impact of this movement–on all forms of the arts–was significant, and helped give a mighty voice to black people that they had never had before.  In the two decades that it lasted, the New Negro Art movement inspired significant changes in numerous other aspects of society as well, slowly contributing to the breaking down of racial barriers and integrating society, proving that art truly is the universal language.

Guests of the brown bag lunch and lecture series, which is held from Noon to 1:00 every third Thursday, are always encouraged to bring their lunch to enjoy during the lecture, and then participate in a lively discussion afterward.  The Forsyth invites you to join us and learn more about art and how it affects our world.

Violet M. Showers Johnson is Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies. She is the author of The Other Black Bostonians:  West Indians in Boston, 1900-1950.  For more information about the Africana Studies Program, please contact Ms. Johnson.


Good Bull at The Forsyth Galleries

Good Bull at The Forsyth Galleries

Text by Lynn C. McDaniel, Communications Specialist for the University Art Department

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Photos by Heather Bennett, Collections Manager for the Forsyth Galleries

As mentioned in an earlier blog, conservation and care of the statues and memorials on campus is one of the jobs of the University Art Galleries Department.  Some time back, the Forsyth Galleries made long-term loans of two sculptures to the Large Animal Clinic.  Although the pieces were displayed inside the building, they were not kept in a climate-controlled environment.  Eventually, time and the elements took their toll, and moisture collected under the bases, causing corrosion.  Collections Manager Heather Bennett and Assistant Collections Manager Josh Harden recently brought the statues back to the Forsyth Galleries’ work area to clean them and ensure their preservation.

The sculptures, titled The Bellowing Bull and The Charging Bull, are sand-cast bronze.   Artist Isadore Jules Bonheur, known for his domestic cattle and bull works, first exhibited this matching pair of bulls at the 1865 Paris Salon.  The stunning bronzes feature a deep brown patina with prominent casting details that give the bulls a sense of realism and muscular motion.

The moisture that had collected under the base was causing the bronze to oxidize.  Josh used a toothbrush and ionized water to clean away the active corrosion.  Ionized water is water that has had its acid and alkaline content segregated.  After the first cleaning, the object will be cleaned again with baking soda to completely neutralize the active corrosion.

Once the cleaning is complete, the statues will be returned to the Large Animal Clinic for the continued enjoyment of those who work, study and visit that facility.

For more information about Isadore Jules Bonheur, please click here.  For more information about the Large Animal Hospital, please click here.

Additional Information:

1.)    The Victoria and Albert Museum:  The Artificial Patination of Bronze Sculptures:

2.)    Causes of Corrosion:

Caffey Eying Rare Homer Painting from Forsyth Gallery Collection “Winding the Clock,” by Winslow Homer.

Written by Guest Author Richard Nira

Photo of Dr. Stephen Caffey
TAMU College of Architecture art historian Stephen Caffey

A rare work in Texas A&M’s Forsyth Galleries by Winslow Homer, a preeminent figure in U.S. art history, is receiving its first-ever scholarly attention from Stephen Caffey, assistant professor of architecture at Texas A&M.

“His work captured the complexity of American identity in the late 19th century because, beginning with the Civil War, he was able to represent the conflict between North and South and changing gender roles without taking a stand,” said Caffey.

Photo of Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer

The largely self-taught, Homer (1836-1910) was a versatile artist who worked in a wide range of subjects, styles and mediums.

Last year, after being asked to participate in the Forsyth Gallery brown bag lunch and lecture series, Caffey learned of a Homer piece in the collection and opted to make the painting his lecture topic.

Caffey, who studied Homer’s work extensively in graduate school and is familiar with his catalog, was expecting to see a watercolor from Homer’s Adirondacks series, which depict deer hunting and fishing scenes created for businessmen who felt disconnected from nature because they were working in office buildings on the East Coast.

“As soon as I saw the piece in the Runyon collection my heart leapt because I knew no one had done any scholarship on it at all,” said Caffey. “I didn’t even know it existed.”

Winslow Homer's painting "Winding the Clock"
Winslow Homer’s “Winding the Clock” (click to enlarge)

Caffey has since learned that the piece, “Winding the Clock,” was published only once, prior to an 1881 New York watercolor exhibition.

The painting depicts a single woman in a claustrophobic interior space standing on a stool, blowing the dust off a key she’s holding to a grandfather clock.

“In addition to being technically astonishing because it shows a woman in a white dress with a lot of detail, which is almost impossible to do in a watercolor, it also presents a woman in a way we’d never seen before in American painting,” said Caffey.

Among the topics “Winding the Clock” addresses, he said, are single women in wealthy and well educated households, the potential symbolic meaning of winding the clock and the passage of time.

“The fact that it’s part of the Runyon collection is like finding the Titanic in terms of its potential to improve scholarly understanding of Homer’s work and also to draw attention to the fact that Texas A&M owns this really important and little-known Homer painting,” he said.

Caffey and Nan Curtis, who was director of the Forsyth Galleries at the time, agreed to collaborate on a journal article  which would  detail the painting’s place in the broader series of Homer’s work and do research, partially funded by the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, investigating its path in private ownership to the Runyon collection.  Since Curtis’ departure, Caffey has continued his research alone.

Caffey‘s effort will involve a trip to the Harvard University library, where the family papers of a Union Civil War officer who originally acquired “Winding the Clock” from Winslow are housed, the Boston Public Library, where a portrait of the officer is located, and Homer’s papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

After the Civil War, the Union officer told Homer he wanted to buy “Winding the Clock” after seeing it at Homer’s studio, where he was arranging a portrait session. Homer agreed on the condition the sale was completed after the 1881 New York watercolor exhibit.

Caffey said Homer began to attract attention internationally with a painting called “Prisoners From the Front,” displayed at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, which drew raves from French art critics.

“It depicts a Union commander with a group of Confederate prisoners,” he said. “In precise and nuanced ways he conveys the complexity and the ambivalence of the lingering tensions inherent after the Civil War.”

Homer’s not saying, continued Caffey, that the Confederate side is “right” or the Union side is “right”.

“What he’s saying is ‘this is a really complicated situation, so let me articulate that complexity in a way that’s permeated with ambivalence,’” said Caffey. “In his work,” he said, ‘I’m not advancing any sort of argument about it, I just want to observe it and present it to you.’”

Many in the U.S. are unaware of Homer’s stature in art history —a reflection, Caffey said, that’s characteristic of the field.

“Art history emphasizes the most obscure, the most esoteric, and most isolated,” he said. “It’s an interesting distortion we really don’t experience in any other type of history, where you always look at what was most popular, most influential, most widely understood.”

Because Homer was working in a traditional academic style, he wasn’t highly regarded by the intelligentsia, the avant-garde,” said Caffey.

The piece was recently on display,  during the grand opening of the newly renovated Forsyth Galleries, located on the 2nd floor of the MSC.

The research project was noted in the Museum Education Monitor, which tracks and records research and resources in museum education with an aim of enhancing the development of theory and practice in the field by academics and museum professionals.

Posted September 2, 2011 in ArchOne: The Newsletter for the Texas A&M College of Architecture. Reprinted with edits by permission of Phillip Rollfing.