Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill

Typically when scholars interpret African American art, they do so through the primary lens of racial identity, often glossing over overt Christian themes, expressions of religious identity. Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press, 2017), edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, seeks to redress that dearth by examining the Christian content, including theological significance, of works by fourteen African American artists who came to maturity between the Civil War and the civil rights era: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., William H. Johnson, James Richmond Barthé, Allan Rohan Crite, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, James VanDerZee, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Many of these artists were themselves devout Christians, working out of internalized religious convictions and not merely outward tradition or market expectations.

Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American ArtThe essayists certainly take race into account as a factor in the works discussed, but not the only factor; political, socioeconomic, and biographical circumstances are also considered. Christianity, however, as the title suggests, is given pride of place in the selection and examination of the fifty-five images reproduced in the book.

One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented. As the book shows, African American art is no monolith, and neither is African American Christianity. While there is so-called primitive art and visionary art created by self-taught individuals with crayons, cardboard, or salvaged limestone, there is also neo-classical sculpture, as well as other academically informed works that tend toward impressionism or expressionism. Among the pages are rough-hewn stone sculptures, abstract watercolors, naturalistic oil paintings, and portrait photographs. While there are many depictions of Christ as black, there are also, per tradition, white Christs, and even a Middle Eastern one. What was most surprising to me was to see examples of art by African Americans from high-church traditions, like Catholicism and Anglicanism, who distinguish themselves from low-church Baptists, Pentecostals, and Holiness Christians. The editors are to the applauded for resisting the urge to perpetuate a narrow vision of “Negro art” in line with what the artists’ contemporary critics and viewers principally sought.

Another hallmark of the book is the rigorous formal evaluation and content analysis of specific artworks that make up the bulk of almost every essay, encouraging readers to look deeply. Biographical information about the artists is well integrated and does not overwhelm the focus on the works themselves. Given this image-forward approach, I must say, I’m disappointed that a handful of works, for which color photographs should be available, are reproduced in black and white—for example, Motley’s Tongues (Holy Rollers), Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, and Lawrence’s Sermon II and Sermon VII. Luckily these can be found online, but seeing as the entire book is printed in full color with glossy pages, I wonder why color photographs of these were not sought or obtained.

Lastly, I really appreciate the connections between artists made possible by the bringing together of these essays—some made explicitly by the authors, others implied. Douglas and Lawrence both dignified the art of black preaching by visualizing sermons. Crite and Johnson visualized the spirituals, but using very different approaches. Edmondson and Morgan were both motivated by a belief that they were divinely ordained to create by supernatural visions. Episcopal Crite and Catholic Motley intertwined class and religion in their works.

This book is essential reading for anyone in the fields of Christianity and the arts or African American studies. As one belonging to the former category, I see these artworks as part of not only art history but Christian history, and as worthy of being studied by Christians as any theological treatise, written scripture commentary, saint’s biography, or church trend. These artworks teach theology; they encapsulate hopes and fears; they comment on public issues; they expose sin; they lead us in celebration and in lament; they help us to re-member the works of Christ, and invite us into communion with him; they tell us who we are and from whence we’ve come; they cast a biblically grounded vision for the future.

What follows is a brief summary of each chapter.

In chapter 1, Kirsten Pai Buick traces the network of patronage that supported Catholic sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, as well as the multiple geographic moves she made to further her career: from Boston to Rome (1865), Rome to Paris (1893), and Paris to London (1901). Because many of Lewis’s religious works have been lost, little attention is given in this chapter to the art itself; the only art illustration is her conventional-looking Bust of Christ (1870), mentioned cursorily in the text.

In chapter 2, James Romaine demonstrates the shift in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings from the visual clarity favored by nineteenth-century academic art to a mood of personalized spiritual mystery favored by the twentieth-century symbolists. He examines four paintings as representative of this move—The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), Nicodemus (1899), The Two Disciples at the Tomb (ca. 1906), and The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water (ca. 1907)—revealing how each explores the complex exchange between vision and belief.

Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), Nicodemus, 1899. Oil on canvas, 85.5 × 100.3 cm (33.7 × 39.5 in.). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

In chapter 3, Caroline Goeser examines the seven gouaches Aaron Douglas made in response to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. These images align biblical narrative with modern black experience to tell socially resonant stories. In its attention to the African Simon of Cyrene, for example, The Crucifixion (1927) promotes an “Ethiopianist” narrative, influenced by the late nineteenth-century biblical scholar Edward W. Blyden. Simon looms large as the most prominent figure, heaving Christ’s heavy cross over his shoulders, heroized by his vigorous stride and his active gaze toward God’s light above. Bearing similarities to that of the trudging African American migrant in Douglas’s On de No’thern Road (1926), this pose subtly associates the Great Migration north with the burdensome road to Calvary.

Crucifixion by Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), The Crucifixion, 1927. Oil on Masonite, 121.9 × 91.4 cm (48 × 36 in.) Private collection.

Up Golgotha’s rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,
And Simon bore the cross.

In chapter 4, Jacqueline Francis examines the dozen or so paintings Malvin Gray Johnson created between 1927 and 1934, the final years of his life, as visual interpretations of Negro spirituals. Modernist in style, these paintings, she says, united old and new and high and popular expressions, helping to revive and elevate this genre of black folk music that saw diminishing audiences during the Great Depression. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1928), a night scene painted in thick, dark hues and mounted in a gold lunette frame reminiscent of medieval icons, received the most critical attention in Johnson’s time, eliciting comparisons to Albert Pinkham Ryder. The artist said,

I have tried to show the escape of emotion which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound out. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness, they have gone from their cabin to the river’s edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom for which they long. (qtd. 56)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Malvin Gray Johnson
Malvin Gray Johnson (American, 1896–1934), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1928. Oil on canvas, 124.5 × 73.5 cm (49 × 29 in.). Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City.

Continue reading “Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill”

Three Advent video series

“Art for Advent 2017” (Dr. James Romaine): For the third year in a row, my friend James Romaine, an art historian, is releasing four videos in which he discusses historically significant artworks keyed to the season of Advent. Last year he looked at works from the Met Cloisters; this year he’s focusing on paintings by the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). If you want to learn more about Tanner, see Romaine’s essay on him in the recently published book Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, which Romaine coedited; I own a copy and look forward to reviewing it on the blog in the new year! (Update: Here’s the book review.)

Annunciation (detail) by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), The Annunciation (detail), 1898. Oil on canvas, 57 × 71 1/4 in. (144.8 × 181 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Romaine’s first “Art for Advent 2017” video covers Tanner’s Annunciation, which has been the header image of this website for the last two months. I saw the painting in person for the first time this summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it transfixed me. (Along with Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion, it was my favorite piece on display.) It was the first major painting of a biblical subject that Tanner completed following his six-week trip to the Holy Land, undertaken as part of his search for historically authentic imagery.

First Sunday of Advent: The Annunciation:

Second Sunday of Advent: The Holy Family:

Third Sunday of Advent: Flight into Egypt:

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures:

To view “Art for Advent” videos from previous years, visit Romaine’s Seeing Art History YouTube channel.

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“The Joyous Mysteries” (The Liturgists): Meditating on the five “Joyous Mysteries” of Christ’s childhood—the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Finding of Christ in the Temple—is a Catholic devotional practice, part of “praying the rosary,” that some Protestants have found spiritually helpful and have adapted to their own quiet times with God.

To draw us into the movements of the Christmas story, The Liturgists invited four visual artists to create a work based on one of the first four Joyous Mysteries. They then shot two videos for each artwork—one an “Artist Narrative,” where the artist talks about his or her work and process, and the other an “imago divina” meditation led by Mike McHargue (“Science Mike”), which guides us through looking at and responding to the artwork. The videos are backed by original instrumental compositions by Tim Coons of Giants & Pilgrims and one by Jon Leverkuhn, which you can download for free on Bandcamp. You can also purchase signed, limited edition art prints for $35 each, or $95 for a full set.

Here is the list of videos; I’ve embedded my two favorites (I’m partial to figurative art):

1. The Annunciation, with art by Betony Coons: Meditation | Artist Narrative

2. The Visitation, with art by Wes Sam-Bruce: Meditation | Artist Narrative

3. The Nativity, with art by Katie Mai-Fusco: Meditation | Artist Narrative

4. The Presentation, with art by Tony Garza: Meditation | Artist Narrative

Thank you, Liturgists and friends, for this impressive Advent offering!   Continue reading “Three Advent video series”

Roundup: Bad-news blessing, the transfiguration of Marilyn Monroe, Christian speculative fiction anthology, European sacred art tour

BLESSING: “Blessing for Getting the News” by Jan L. Richardson: August brought two devastating pieces of news to me; I wasn’t in the line of direct impact, but I hurt for the two families who were. A blessing by artist-author Jan L. Richardson came at just the right time. Here’s an excerpt:

. . . when
the news comes,
may it be attended
by every grace,
including the ones
you will not be able
to see now.

When the news comes,
may there be hands
to enfold and bless,
even when
you cannot receive
their blessing now.

When the news comes,
may the humming
in your head
give way to song,
even if it will be
long and long
before you can
hear it,

before you can
comprehend the love
that latched onto you
in the rending—
the love that bound itself to you
even as it began its leaving
and has never
let you go.

Read more, and view original accompanying artwork, at http://paintedprayerbook.com.

ESSAY: “Transfiguring Gold: Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe” by James Romaine: In his latest visual meditation for ArtWay, art historian James Romaine writes on external versus essential beauty, and the Orthodox aesthetic, in one of Warhol’s most famous paintings. “A revelation of uncreated and transfiguring light” in the icon tradition, the use of gold, Romaine posits, was a theological choice on Warhol’s part, one influenced by his Byzantine Catholic faith. Warhol drew on celebrity imagery to encourage a transformation in viewers from material sight to metaphysical vision. This essay is adapted from a more extensive one titled “The Transfiguration of the Soup Can,” published in Beauty and the Beautiful in Eastern Christian Culture and linked to here with the author’s permission.

Gold Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 211.4 × 144.7 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

BOOK: Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith, edited by Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz: Last week the husband and wife team of Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz published an anthology of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that engage with Christianity. It features twenty of the 450-plus submissions they received, all but four of which are published here for the first time. Describing their criteria for selection, Crankshaw writes in the introduction, “We wanted stories that were as untidy and as theologically imprecise as the Bible itself.” The result is a collection of diverse voices and approaches, exploring such topics as sin, forgiveness, the afterlife, the soul, mission, miracles, and supernatural agents. To read excerpts from the book, visit www.mysterionanthology.com.

Mysterion cover

TOUR: “Reformanda 2017: Sacred Arts Today, Catholic and Protestant”: The Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality, founded by the Community of Jesus in Massachusetts, has organized a four-leg European tour for next May 10–30 that will explore the face of sacred art from the last five hundred years since the Reformation. With stops in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, the itinerary includes visits to churches and contemporary art exhibitions, symposium lectures and discussions led by Msgr. Timothy Verdon, and Gloriae Dei Cantores choral concerts. Registration is now open.

Reformanda Tour Map