By Chris Waddington, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Black history gets larger than life treatment at the New Orleans Museum of Art with the May 16 debut of “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College.”:
The touring exhibit includes 35 pieces by the celebrated muralist – prints, drawings, a small survey of his easel paintings and the grand murals that depict events from African-American history, including the mutiny on the slave ship Amistad, the Underground Railroad, and the founding of historically black Talladega College in 1867.
“Pilgrims have been travelling to see these murals for decades,” said NOMA curator Lisa Rotondo-McCord. “Talladega was a natural stop for anyone with an interest in American murals – and for those who wanted to see one of the key statements by an important African-American painter and educator.”
The murals, painted on canvas, were created for the library of the Alabama school in 1939 and 1942. They form an ensemble, not just for their recurring motifs and characters, but also because Talladega College was founded by some of the same abolitionists who defend the Amistad rebels when they were tried – and ultimately freed – following the 1839 mutiny.
The murals had never been seen outside the college library until the current museum tour, a seven-city affair that began at the High Museum in Atlanta, Ga. In addition to New Orleans, the tour includes stops in Dallas, Tex., Hartford, Conn., Washington, D.C., Birmingham, Ala., and New York City.
The opportunity to circulate the work came when the college joined with the High Museum to clean and restore the murals. The massive paintings – up to six feet high and 20 feet wide – were detached from the library walls and restored at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center.
“They look like the day they were painted, with amazingly vibrant colors, “Rotondo-McCord said. “And our installation lets visitors get close to the paintings and see all kinds of fascinating details, including the self-portrait that Woodruff slipped into the Amistad trial mural.”
The NOMA exhibit emphasizes Woodruff’s working process by including small oil sketches and preparatory drawings in which he tested his ideas. (The accompanying catalog details how Woodruff drew on period documents to lend verisimilitude to his historical scenes).
Woodruff’s narrative instincts and his powerful sense of design also come forth in the murals
“One-point perspective isn’t a concern for Woodruff. He conflates space, crams the foreground with activity, and compresses the middle space,” Rotondo-McCord said. “It’s all about pattern and composition for Woodruff, except that he always harnesses those design elements to tell his stories in compelling ways.”
Woodruff’s manner and methods resemble those of other, better known painters — from Thomas Hart Benton to Diego Rivera – whose approach to public art provided a template for an entire generation of North American artists, especially those who sought to address political and social questions through art.
Woodruff came to that style in the mid-1930s, after a decade of evolution. In his early work, he had adopted a post-impressionist manner, crafting gentle landscapes and portraits. Later, he experimented with modernist approaches during a four-year residence in Paris, which he funded, in part, with a prize won from the Harmon Foundation – one of the few organizations that supported African-American artists in the Jim Crow era.
Woodruff changed directions after meeting Rivera. The African-American painter, already well-established and teaching at Atlanta University, traveled to Mexico in 1936 to study with the renowned muralist. The encounter helped Woodward toward a personal style that was also political – a way to talk about injustice and the place of black people in the United States.
Despite its historic associations, the Woodruff exhibit has plenty to say to contemporary viewers, Rotondo-McCord said.
“Some will come to this show to learn more about the past it embodies – to see how a 20th century artist responded to the struggles of his people,” the curator said. “Others will enjoy it as an exhibit of fine painting. And some will see how much it addresses our current interest in public art – from Banksy murals in downtown New Orleans to the impact of all those sculptures on Veteran’s (Memorial) Boulevard. When we looked at bringing the show to NOMA, it seemed like something essential – and very topical – for the city.”
Hale Woodruff at New Orleans Museum of Art
What: “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” is the first touring exhibit of the massive historical paintings created by the noted African-American artist.
Where: New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park.
When: May 16-Sept. 14. Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 children (ages 7-17). Wednesdays are free for Louisiana residents with ID. For details call 504.658.4100 or visit noma.org.