Painted in 1991, Kerry James Marshall’s You Must Suffer if You Want to be Beautiful is a rare and formative painting. An idealized female nude, whose coy pose and delicate gestures belie the confrontational directness of her intense gaze and the weightiness of her zaftig figure, is rendered larger than life in this powerful example of Marshall’s first mature cycle of work. Vestiges of the painting’s verdant background linger beneath layers of opaque white, which is interspersed with collaged heroines from vintage Harlequin Romance novels. In this majestic portrayal, the artist integrates aspects of pop culture with humorous art historical references, all the while addressing the marginalized status of African-American artists to invent, in his words, “a new black archetype” for female beauty. “Up until then,” Marshall has said, “I had not considered that a black woman could be considered as a goddess of love and beauty. Even I took the classic European ideal for granted. ...I wanted to develop a stylized representation of a beauty that would be unequivocally black” (K. J. Marshall, quoted in T . Sultan, “This is the Way We Live,” Kerry James Marshall, New York, 2000, p. 14). Indeed, You Must Suffer if You Want to be Beautiful continues to resonate as issues of race remain among the most divisive issues in contemporary society. Touching on cultural taboos as well as his own identity as an African-American artist, Marshall’s paintings continue to surprise, delight and provoke, as his stunning 2016 retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has recently demonstrated.
Contradictions and cultural hybridity abound in this clever portrayal, as Marshall weaves together a curious blend of art historical precedent and biting social critique in the aptly-titled You Must Suffer if You Want to be Beautiful. Measuring over six feet tall, the painting displays a classically derived nude, whose slightly slouched posture emulates the subtle serpentine curve of Renaissance sculpture - especially the classical “ideal” represented by Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The graceful, undulating outline of the figure’s body accentuates the curvature of her waist and hips, as it wends its way along the contours of her womanly shape, culminating in her delicately upturned heel and slightly outstretched toes. Typical to the series, Marshall has collaged the covers of Harlequin Romance novels on the canvas, which he then surrounds with brushy layers of white paint. The perfectly coiffed hairdos and coy, come-hither smirks of the predominantly white heroines on these pulp fiction covers stand in direct contrast to the unadorned nude presentation of the black figure, with her unflinching stare. A scrim of small, red dots punctuates the white background, rendered in a wet brush that drips down the canvas in tender rivulets, while also covering the figure’s torso and clavicle like a pox or rash. Sinister allusions linger in this portrayal, conjuring up a distinctly “American” type of violence—from the horrors of the slave trade, to the plague of mass shootings and gun violence, as well as the particular brand of religion that predominates its culture. Whether pox, gunshot wound or stigmata, these potent red dots allude to the quite literal meaning behind the painting’s figurative title: You Must Suffer if You Want to be Beautiful.
“For years he has filled clip files with images and articles culled from magazines and newspapers,” art historian Terrie Sultan has written about Marshall. “He avidly collects books on African and African-American history, art, and literature; mythology; folklore; and film history; as well as posters, comic books, and ‘how to’ manuals from the 1940s and 1950s… These streamlined, self-consciously iconic figures embodied Marshall’s developing strategy for addressing the complicated, intertwined cultural and political rhetoric of racial representation” (T. Sultan, Ibid., p. 13). The present painting fully articulates the artist’s vision as he cleverly integrates hidden symbols and art historical allusions to create an archetypal figure, one that merges the feminine ideal with the African-American experience. Though his figure evokes the stance of classical Greek sculpture - long considered the classical “ideal” of feminine beauty—it nevertheless remains flattened, a schematic representation with stylistic echoes in African Folk Art, the collage of Romare Bearden and the paintings of Charles White, who was Marshall’s instructor at the Otis Art Institute in the 1970s. Indeed, the curious combination of the figure’s nudity and this deliberately flattened presentation effectively “generalizes” the figure’s identity, which is deliberate on Marshall’s part, as he attempts to merge aspects of African-American experience into an art historical cannon that has remained predominantly white. “I decided that whenever I painted an image of a person,” Marshall has said, “it would always be a black image, and that image wouldn’t be a personality so much as it would be an image that spoke directly to the issue of blackness” (K. J. Marshall, quoted in Ibid., p. 12).
Similar paintings of the early 1990s, such as Beauty Examined (1993), Blue Water Silver Moon (Mermaid) (1991) and Voyager (1992) explore femininity as a subset of its concerns, while set within sumptuous, epically-scaled canvases populated with Marshall’s archetypal female protagonists. Certain pictorial motifs repeat across these paintings, such as the collaged Harlequin Romance covers and the stenciled flower pattern that is visible in You Must Suffer if You Want to be Beautiful along the left edge. Yet the central action of these paintings revolve around the African-American heroine that’s become synonymous with Marshall’s work. Here, Marshall conflates the qualities of femininity with blackness, thereby challenging both the Art Historical perspective and its lack of African-American point of view along with its general lack of female artists. He provides a critique of the inherently artificial construction of feminine beauty, all of which is sumptuously painted in ravishing detail. These are tricky waters to navigate, but Marshall continues to delve deeper into the complex paradoxes that underpin our very existence in a world that’s excluded so many for so long.
In March 1991, You Must Suffer if You Want to be Beautiful was exhibited at the Koplin Gallery in Santa Monica, California, where it was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times. “Visually, they’re immensely pleasing,” one reported commented. “Solidly composed, sensual and full of arcane bits of information. At the same time, one needn’t look too hard to see that Marshall views his black heritage with a mixture of pride, rage and despair, and those feelings complicate the work, as well as our response to it” (K. McKenna, “Mixed-Media Homage to a Black Martyr,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1991, p. F25). Indeed, Marshall strikes a careful balance between the contradictory forces at play in his work, which speaks to his identity as an African-American artist in a predominately white art world. “In the black community there’s great resistance to extreme representations of blackness,” he had said. “Some people are unable to see the beauty in that. So I’ve been very conscious of the way I render my figures. I try to give them subtlety and grace and there’s a delicacy in the way I handle the features, especially in the lines and contours. Extreme blackness plus grace equals power” (K. J. Marshall, quoted in “Kerry James Marshall and Arthur Jafa: Fragments from a Conversation,” Kerry James Marshall, New York, 2000, p. 90).