CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)
CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)
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CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)

Study for 'The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America'

Details
CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)
Study for 'The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America'
signed and dated 'Charles White '43' (lower right)
tempera and graphite on illustration board
17 5⁄8 x 26 1⁄4 in. (44.7 x 66.7 cm.)
Executed in 1943.
Provenance
Private collection, Brooklyn, acquired directly from the artist
By descent from the above to present owner
Exhibited
New York, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Rising Up/Uprising: Twentieth Century African American Art, March-May 2014.
Art Institute of Chicago; New York, The Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Charles White: A Retrospective, June 8, 2018- June 9, 2019, pp. 34 and 64, no. 19, pl. 18 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Born on the South Side of Chicago in 1918, Charles White developed a highly successful career as a master draftsman, printmaker, painter and muralist committed to creating images highlighting the under-recognized cultural, economic and political achievements of African Americans throughout history. His best-known mural, The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America, from 1943, at Hampton University in Virginia, for which the present work is the only full-color study, is a complex mosaic of prominent Black men and women from the colonial era to the twentieth century and epitomizes the powerful and poignant images for which White has gained renown as one of the most influential artists of his generation.
Executed with remarkable dexterity and the riveting color of his most celebrated works in tempera, Study for 'The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America', from 1943, monumentalizes and empowers Black Americans through history and present day, whose contributions to preserving democracy have been immense yet underappreciated. His is a work of hope, of the love he felt about living; this work is the incantatory exhortation of his community, whom he saw as the pillars of democracy. Sarah Kelly Oehler writes, "History, in White's telling, is not simply the sum of biographies of notables but instead a living entity to be shaped by all - including the artist" (Ibid., p. 35).
For The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America, White first prepared a pencil drawing (1943, Hampton University Museum) and then the present example, which he used as his final reference to execute the 12 by 18 foot mural directly onto the wall, also completed in tempera. This was the first time the artist had the opportunity to execute a mural on-site, requiring a detailed reference work for which the present study served. Numerous figure drawings survive, including a double study of Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington (1943, Newark Museum), but Study for 'The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America’ is the only full-color study in existence and has remained in the private hands of friends of the artist since its completion.
Charles White began his mural work in 1939 after joining the WPA's Federal Illinois Art Project, where he felt he could advocate for Black history and counteract racist visual culture through his art. He said, “I like to think that my work has a universality to it. I deal with love, hope, courage, freedom, dignity- the full gamut of human spirit. When I work, though, I think of my own people. That’s only natural.” By incorporating prominent Black historical figures in his murals, as well as highlighting the struggle of the common man, White saw his works as public history lessons, noting, "Art is not for artists and connoisseurs alone. It should be for the people. A mural on the wall of a commonly used building is there for anyone to see and read its message" (Ibid.).
From White’s birth to his 25th year, there had been 11 race riots in America, 28 individuals were subject to public burning by American mobs, and 553 people of African descent had been lynched. In 1942, at the age of 25, White received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to paint The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America for the back wall of the stage in Wainwright Auditorium at Hampton University. In response to the ongoing violence against Black Americans, a history that largely was erased from the American consciousness, White sought a means to combat this paradox of cultural amnesia. His intent for the mural was to use the representative potential of art to document the beauty of the Black community - his community - which has endured in the face of unrelenting and unpunished systematic violence. As declared in the press release for the mural, the monumental work presented “the Negro’s active protest against those antidemocratic forces which have sought to keep a stranglehold upon the common people through the economic slavery and social and political frustration,” advancing the artist’s ideas that he had developed in earlier murals.
White's mural depicts fourteen prominent African Americans throughout history, beginning with Revolutionary War-era heroes Nat Turner, Peter Salem and Crispus Attucks; to Civil War-era antislavery pioneers Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Peter Still and Harriet Tubman; to cultural icons Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington are also featured, highlighting the notable scientific and political contributions of African Americans through the formative years of the developing United States. The historical range of images and styles are at once symphonic and liminal. Also depicted are several unidentified figures, represented by a group of shackled enslaved persons, several Black Union Army soldiers and a modern family of three, to illustrate the unwavering presence and, moreover, the profound efforts of African Americans both named and unnamed in preserving our nation's democracy. The depth of this work, the intention to construct a world of empowering stories, is so much the thrust of the young artist.
The artist weaves in sociological concepts such as religion, as represented by the Angel of Religious Mysticism at upper left, and anti-democratic forces, with the foreboding figure at upper center whose massive hand grips the enslaved person’s shackles; the latter further emphasize the resilience of African Americans throughout centuries of oppression. As he stated in 1940, "I am interested in the social, even the propaganda, angle in painting…Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent. If I could write I would write about it. If I could talk I would talk about it. Since I paint, I must paint about it." (Ibid.) Interestingly, White had originally referred to the mural sketch as “Contribution of the Negro to the Struggle for Democracy in America,” but then titled the large-scale mural slightly differently, as The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America. This evolution of the concept from study to mural points to the tension the artist was living through in an era fraught with violence against the struggle for civil rights at mid-century. Through art, White restores the humanity of his community, careful never to resort to depicting the institutionalized traumas they endured, rather highlighting their life force, the human resistance that defines them as powerfully transcendent.
Charles White began his mural work in 1939 after joining the WPA's Federal Illinois Art Project, where
he felt he could advocate for Black history and counteract racist visual culture through his art. He said, "I
find, in tracing the course of the portrayal of the Negro subject in art, a plague of distortions, stereotyped and superficial caricatures..." (as quoted in Charles White: A Retrospective, p. 25). By
incorporating prominent Black historical figures in his murals, as well as highlighting the struggle of the common man, White saw his works as public history lessons, noting, "Art is not for artists and connoisseurs alone. It should be for the people. A mural on the wall of a commonly used building is there for anyone to see and read its message." (Ibid.)
White depicts his subjects with optimism, his positivity revealing – at an early stage of his career – his commitment to respecting the humanity and honor of his predecessors. The work of his contemporaries and friends, such as Jacob Lawrence, as well as the work of the artists he taught, including David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall, seem to all exist in a dialogue with Study for 'The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America.' White’s execution and technical ability is formidable; he integrates tremendous resolve, skill, passion, knowledge and grasp of material in addition to bringing a compelling human centered perspective to matters historical, political, personal and profound. White was consistent in his devotion to his people, not just to produce works that counterbalance the historic erasure of Black representation, but also to imbue art history with an influx of positive representation. He believed that seeing one’s reflection in art is a critical tool of understanding, both on the personal and collective level. White aimed – successfully – to position his work as vessels of truth, of positivity, to express the creativity and beauty of his community, and always obliquely to reveal their struggles for courage against histories of misery and pain.
This colossal figure as well as the industrial machinery recalls the murals of Diego Rivera, specifically his Detroit Industry and Pan-American Unity (1940, City College of San Francisco). As champions of their respective peoples' histories, White's commitment to heroic and monumental dedications to his people echoed that of Rivera as well as Mexican modernists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Although he first travelled to Mexico in 1946, years after the completion of his first murals, White studied and held a deep interest in the imagery and techniques of the Mexican muralists, implementing their use of bold, graphic linework, compositional balance and bountiful historical and cultural references into his own work, perhaps none more exemplary than the present.
Charles White created a dual portrait of the force of African American creativity, art, thought and labor by having originally titled the mural sketch as “Contribution of the Negro to the Struggle for Democracy in America.” This evolution of the concept from study to mural, which was ultimately titled as “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” points to the tension the artist was living through in an era fraught with civil rights at mid-century. He mirrors artistic and intellectual evolution in the profound observation that democracy requires struggle, democracy dies from lies unchallenged. The effort to expunge the record of the contribution of the Negro, or to whitewash history, distorts the nature of truth, progress and the ability of the populace as a whole to reckon with reality, a requirement for the survival of all of the people.
The word “struggle” is central and pivotal in this painted plan for the mural. The dense imagery deserves deep explication. Each visual element can be lifted from the teeming work, and given context.   Each image has facts and feelings attached, and that knowledge  once embedded with the figure invites the viewer's understanding of the forces against the Negro and the power necessary to overcome it.  The choice to have unadorned images throughout continues a decision of looking at the real people, not giving in to the tendency to glide over exhaustion, not making the labor weary body other than stooped or straight. In portraying the real people, White made good on a kind of promise to use the lines and colors to tell the truth, not to embellish and gloss over life making it a lie. The mission of the visual narrative is to allow the viewer to understand how extraordinary The Contribution is, by offering the eyes of Charles White, who put aside the horror and showed his people’s hands, and the works made, and whose eyes asked as did his own: you are human, have you a soul?  

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