I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, yesterday, with some out-of-town friends. Among other things, we saw the Charles White retrospective. His art is so powerful. Highly recommend.
White is maybe most famous for his mural: The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America.
White was part of Chicago’s Black Renaissance, in the 1930s and ‘40s. I would call him a Social Realist. He manages, though, with big blocky figures, to depict people as simultaneously heroic and human. They are particular. And noble types.
I didn’t know of White, despite knowing a lot about the world around him. He did work for the WPA and I just taught about the WPA. He illustrated one of Howard Fast’s novels, and I read a bunch of those as a kid. He did some art for Paul Robeson, and I’ve listened to a lot of Robeson.
It is and isn’t the right phrase, but Charles White was a fellow traveler. His works, together, tell the story of a liberationist struggle, an oppressed class becoming conscious, seizing dignity and democracy, self-determination.
What the reviews of this show fail to mention is how religious it is.
One of the first pieces is of a preacher: his thick hands grasping a tiny Bible. There are several others, as well as continual references to the Bible and gospel music. And these people he’s drawing and painting are conceived as saints.
White is weaving together black history, from Denmark Vesey and Frederick Douglass to the Civil Rights movement, with a Marxist theory of class consciousness, a small-d democratic belief in dignity and self-determination, and a deeply Christian story about deliverance. That last part is not incidental to what he’s doing, even if many miss it.
All the parts, for him, go together. It’s really something to see.