Vol. 1 No. 3 2008


Beauty and Compromise

Art of the Plantation South Casts Light On a Complex, Fantasized Past Best Recalled in Soft Focus and Pale Colors.

Reviewed by Russell Burge

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art
Edited by Angela D. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffius
$24.95, University of South Carolina Press, January 31, 2008

They emerge as from water, rising above the field to meet the light of the sun. Their harvest tumbles from the canvas, golden stalks of rice cascading in a brilliant deluge. Though they turn their faces away from us, we surmise an identity from the make of their clothes and the color of their skin — these are black laborers working in nineteenth century America, laborers toiling under the yoke (or recent shadow) of slavery.

Carting Rice from a Small Field is just one work from a series of paintings by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, entitled A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties (1935). Through her myriad, soft-focus watercolors, Smith offers us a glimpse into the white nostalgia of the post-bellum South. Rice had been an incredibly lucrative industry before the Civil War — taken from Madagascar, the crop exploded in the United States and became known as “Carolina Gold.”

By the close of the eighteen-fifties, four million slaves worked on American soil; the institution’s continued expansion had led to clashes in Harper’s Ferry, (now West Virginia) and “Bleeding” Kansas, and Civil War would break out in 1861. Placed in context, Smith’s watercolors are troublesomely beautiful. They reflect the widespread inability of twentieth-century Americans to confront the nineteenth-century South. They are not documents but anodyne constructs, recollections that omit the suffering of blacks and the despotism of wealthy whites.

The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston has presented its answer to this enduring nostalgia in the exhibition and catalogue Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art. Edited by Angela D. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffius, the catalogue consists of seven essays by American art historians; though their subject matter and approach vary widely, each scholar uses representations of the plantation to unlock (and critique) American paradigms throughout the last two hundred years.

In her introduction to the volume, Mack opens with a meditation on America’s fascination with the plantation. Under girding this fascination, she argues, is an interest in slavery; however, “just as the U.S. government turned away from Reconstruction in 1876… so Americans have never really addressed the complex issues of slavery in art.”

According to Johnson, the plantation — and the oppressive system of sharecropping that succeeded it — has become a zone of redress for black artists. By highlighting the suffering of slaves and sharecroppers, black artists have made visible that which the white status quo has sought to disappear: the human cost of racial hierarchy.

In this same vein, white artists have primarily represented white interests (though Johnson highlights the period during and immediately after Reconstruction, when some white artists handled the South with greater complexity). Before Emancipation, the plantation was depicted as a zone of power and prestige; after Emancipation, the plantation became a zone of nostalgia. Johnson reinforces her argument with reference to specific paintings, among them Smith’s Carting Rice from a Small Field.

The competition of these worldviews is a central theme throughout Landscape of Slavery. The unspoken corollary — that artists and patrons are fundamentally self-interested — is a cornerstone in social art history, which has been a significant force in art scholarship since the 1970’s. According to the social art historian, our notions of beauty are dictated by those who have the power to commission art. In this relationship, compromises are made — compromises with the truth, compromises that we trust the commissioning parties to make for us.

Navigating this reality is a tall order, and Landscape of Slavery’s six principle essays — with one exception — provide solid points of departure. In “Perpetuating the Past: Plantation Landscape Paintings Then and Now,” John Michael Vlach samples five images that illustrate the persistence of “plantation fantasies.” His discussion of the post-Reconstruction period is especially illuminating: drawing on A Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi (1884), a popular Currier & Ives lithograph after William Aiken Walker, Vlach demonstrates how the “New South” idealized the previous, slaveholding generation.

The 1880’s were a difficult time for Southern planters; still struggling to reassert their dominance after an abortive postwar Reconstruction, many landowners saw their harvests fall short of the expected yield. The Currier & Ives lithograph reveals nothing of these tensions . It is an ordered scene, depicting a team of slaves directed by gentle masters. In the midst of this nostalgic construction of slavery, Walker (and Currier & Ives) has placed a steam-powered cotton gin: the backward-looking mirage of Southern glory is wedded with the forward-looking vision of Southern industriousness. To the proponents of the New South, there would have been no contradiction here; Walker’s vision was one of progress through reclamation, a reform-minded aesthetic cobbled together from rose-tinted traditionalism.

As Vlach reveals, the same mentality has survived to the present day. When, in 1992, EverGreene Painting Studios was commissioned to complete murals in the United States Capitol’s “Westward Expansion Corridor,” they responded to calls for racial diversity by including the register Sharecroppers (1993-1994). Much of this mural, however, was borrowed from Walker’s A Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi; though it does include representations of black Americans, they are shown in an idealized scene of labor, a scene informed by nineteenth century pro-slavery propaganda.

Vlach’s work on plantation art pre-dates Landscape of Slavery; according to Johnson, his 2002 book

paved the way for her exhibit catalogue. The central themes of Landscape of Slavery are apparent in Vlach’s work — the struggle of white artists to maintain the invisibility of slavery’s injustices, and the struggle of black artists to make themselves seen.

Many of the subsequent essays in Landscape of Slavery follow in this trajectory. Roberta Sokolitz’ “Picturing the Plantation” charts a formal history of plantation art that begins at the European picturesque school, whose “natural scenes” were popular in Britain. Closely associated with landscaping and private property, the picturesque aesthetic was well suited to the New World elite, who sought a visual program to flatter their land and property. Sokolitz’ study builds to an examination of abolitionist works executed by black artists; plantation scenes take on an entirely new dimension in this context, informed by the Biblical drama and pathos of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Alexis L. Boylan’s “From Gilded Age to Gone with the Wind” charts a period of artistic ambivalence after the Civil War, illustrated by the emotionally complex works of Winslow Homer. Homer’s images of sharecroppers and newly freed slaves defy easy categorization; his works reveal a preoccupation with the uncertain future of free blacks, eschewing the pro- or anti-slavery morality tales that had dominated earlier representations of the South.

According to Boylan, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind reasserted white nostalgia in its original 1936 publication and again in its 1939 film adaptation, rendering the nuance and sensitivity of Homer and other postwar artists obsolete. Through representations of Confederate gentility, Union corruption, and harmonious race relations under slavery, Gone with the Wind re-contextualized the antebellum South as a period of heroic myth, and Reconstruction as its Dark Age. As a cultural phenomenon, Mitchell’s epic set the tone for the popular reception of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and EverGreene Studios, drawing public consciousness away from more involved explorations of Southern identity.

Maurie McInnis’ “The Most Famous Plantation of All: The Politics of Painting Mount Vernon” stands out as a work of scholarship. Whereas Landscape of Slavery’s other essays provide interesting starting points for more rigorous inquiry, McInnis’ article is a focused study in its own right. By limiting her scope to one plantation, McInnis is able to demonstrate how a single plot of land took on various meanings throughout the nineteenth century.

According to McInnis, George Washington was touted as a hero by both pro- and anti-slavery camps. She illustrates this dual identity through two works executed on the eve of sectional conflict, Junius Brutus Stearns’ Washington as a Farmer, at Mount Vernon (1851) and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851). Stearns had visited Mount Vernon and made an acquaintance of Washington’s adopted son; by depicting Washington as a benevolent, paternalistic slaveholder, his work reflects a pro-slavery family narrative and political position. In Leutze’s work, Mount Vernon is conspicuously absent; Washington is not represented on his plantation, but rather “is standing resolutely upright in the first boat to cross the Delaware River… at the head (literally and figuratively) of the abstract principles of freedom and independence.”

Like Boylan, McInnis sees a nineteenth century period in which white artists were able to engage the plantation with emotional complexity; she appeals, however, to Eastman Johnson, who painted immediately prior to the Civil War (roughly twenty years before Homer’s late and post-Reconstruction works). Taking Mount Vernon as his subject matter, Johnson made a radical decision in depicting the historic plantation as it currently stood: Kitchen at Mount Vernon (1857) reveals a dilapidated Mount Vernon, smeared with dirt and tended by neglected slaves. This artistic move is amplified and symbolized by Johnson’s The Old Mount Vernon (1857), which shifts perspective from the neoclassical façade to the outbuilding and slave population that resided at the side of the estate. Like Homer, Johnson is concerned with the reality of black American life; his paintings are anti-heroic, concerned with that which lies beneath (or beside) our myths and cults of personality.

Leslie King-Hammond’s “Identifying Spaces of Blackness: The Aesthetics of Resistance and Identity in American Plantation Art” is a departure from the scholarly rigor that characterizes most of Landscape of Slavery. King-Hammond delves into issues of cultural identity from the outset. She quotes Molefi Asante when she asserts “part of the difficulty of assessing the African aesthetic… has been the dislocation of Africa and Africans for the past five centuries. The traditions of the African aesthetic in the West have been discontinuous, corrupted, and distorted.”

King-Hammond’s assertion immediately raises the question: What is Africa? Historically, Africa is a Western concept; the continent itself is populated by impossibly diverse groups of people, united in our present moment by a legacy of European colonialism. While various cultures were uprooted and transformed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, these cultures did not participate — except to the Western mind — in any one “Africa.”

Michael D. Harris provides a stronger study of aesthetic resistance in “Blind Memory and Old Resentments,” a snapshot of artistic responses to slavery and racism in America. Rather than seeking out a fundamental Africanness in the work of black artists, Harris studies how artists have used images of Africa — and slavery — to create their own meanings. The concept of signifyin’, or turning the vocabulary of the white power structure against itself, is central in Harris’ piece. Juan Logan’s By Any Other Name (2003) is a compelling illustration of signifyin’: Logan starts with an image of Aunt Jemima, but obscures her features in a field of black. He fills this void with Brazil nuts — “nigger toes,” in American slang. As Harris quotes Logan, By Any Other Name “[is] going back to that whole thing [about] identity and recognition… [What clues or cues do I have to give you to get you to see me? I figure maybe I should give you some of your own creation, maybe you can recognize me by these Brazil nuts.”

Logan’s work highlights the compromises we allow ourselves to make — the fantasies we accept, such as Aunt Jemima, that obscure real problems in class, race, and identity. Like the authors of Landscape of Slavery, he takes a necessary step in reversing this trend: he takes it upon himself to educate his audience, even if it the truth is unflattering, even if it means exposing the ugliness beneath our systems of beauty.

Russell Burge is a recent graduate of the University of Calidornia, Los Angeles. He lives and works in New York.

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