Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Instagram: Murals "open" to the public

Paul Manoguerra on the George Beattie Murals at the Georgia Museum of Art


White plantation owners on the Georgia Sea Islands, in the years following the Revolutionary War, made the coastal area an important producer of rice and of sugarcane. Planters like Sapelo Island’s Thomas Spalding (1774–1851) oversaw the creation of sugarcane plantations and the construction of tabby mills to process the crop into sugar. In order to accomplish these agricultural and economic goals, Spalding and other planters imported hundreds of enslaved Africans—mainly from Angola, Sierra Leone, and Gambia—to work the rice fields and sugar plantations of the coast. In this mural, Beattie leaves slavery simply implied, as the viewer sees no masters, no overseers, and no shackles. The enslaved African Americans, idealized as powerful, active figures, harvest sugarcane. For the monumental central figure of the mural, Beattie directly cites the Renaissance artist Michelangelo and a figure— the so-called Rebellious Slave (ca. 1515, marble, now in The Louvre) struggling to free himself—originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Like Michelangelo’s “slave” figure, Beattie’s muscular male exhibits strength in his twisting labor and references the physical power of ancient Greek and Roman gods and heroes. Beattie juxtaposes the figures and the working mule at the right of the painting to represent the chattel nature of slavery, but he ignores the horrors and indignities inflicted on enslaved persons as he celebrates the dignity of labor and the agency of enslaved individuals.

"James Edward Oglethorpe"

For the second mural depicting the history of Georgia agriculture, Beattie elected to show as a monumental figure dominating the left side of the composition James Edward Oglethorpe, an English military leader and social reformer and founder of the colony of Georgia in 1733. Beattie presents Oglethorpe wearing a royal purple coat and plumed hat and using a cane, and sets him apart from the other European settlers in the image.

Over Oglethorpe’s right shoulder, we see Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, with a cannon emerging from the battlements, and the Anne, the ship that brought the first settlers to Georgia. Behind the Englishman to Oglethorpe’s left, Beattie presents Tomochichi, a leader of the Yamacraw people, making connections to the first mural in the narrative. Other Yamacraws stand in the background at the far right of the mural. Beattie also shows Methodist church founder John Wesley, his back to the viewer, leading a crowd of settlers in prayer. The organization of Beattie’s composition references earlier “founding” American images, including Benjamin West’s Penn’s Tready with Indians (1771–72). When Oglethorpe and the colonists arrived, one of their priorities was for the new territory to produce commodities for export to England. In the immediate foreground, the artist displays three European settlers engaged in initial attempts to plant rice along the Georgia sea coast. Oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss, help Beattie frame the various scenes in the mural’s composition.

The controversy

“As a human being, I am vehemently opposed to slavery, as anyone should be, but it was a significant epoch in our history; it would have been inaccurate not to include this period.” — George Beattie, 1995

How would you embark on painting the history and the present of agriculture in the state of Georgia? What decisions would you make that would have been the same or different from the choices Beattie made for his murals? Are his subjects the ones you would choose? Were they appropriate in 1956, and are they appropriate today?

Beattie’s murals for the state Department of Agriculture building in Atlanta have provoked controversy related to their appropriateness, cultural meaning, and quality. A 2009 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution re-questioned, in particular, the image of slaves picking and ginning cotton. In late 2010, new Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black ordered all the murals removed from the building.

Conservators were able to take down safely seven of the eight paintings on Masonite from their respective locations in the building, and all eight paintings were transferred to the ownership of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia.

Here are some reactions to the murals that appeared in print:
“We have had some people who found them offensive. I say I as a black woman see it as part of history. . . . We can’t just roll out history when it’s convenient.” — Brenda James Griffin, retired assistant commissioner of public affairs, Georgia Department of Agriculture, 2009.
“My students and I were shocked that [the slavery mural] is so prominent in a government building.” —Bruce Wade, associate professor of sociology, Spelman College, 2009.

“I don’t like those pictures. There are a lot of other people who don’t like them. . . . I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture.” —Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black, 2010.

“Even if you don’t embrace [the murals], accept them for what they are and use them as teaching tools.” —Bob Ray Sanders, columnist, Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram, 2011.

"Cotton Gin"

George Beattie (American, 1919-1997)
Cotton Gin, 1956
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Transfer from the Georgia Capitol Museum, a department of the University of Georgia Libraries
GMOA 2011.647

It would have been remarkable for any artist to attempt to present the history of agriculture in Georgia without including enslaved Africans and African Americans working on a cotton plantation. By the 1790s, entrepreneurs looking to turn cotton into a lucrative crop for the state were perfecting new mechanized cotton gins, the most famous of which was invented by Eli Whitney on a Savannah River plantation owned by Catharine Greene in 1793. With the innovation allowing easy removal of the seeds from the crop, cotton planters greatly expanded production, relying on the labor of the enslaved, and the slave population of Georgia increased dramatically during the early decades of the nineteenth century. In 1790, some 29,000 slaves resided in the state; by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, some 460,000 slaves constituted 44 percent of Georgia’s total population. About three quarters of Georgia’s slave population resided on cotton plantations. Whatever their location, slaves in Georgia resisted their masters with strategies that included overt violence against whites, flight, the destruction of white property, and deliberately inefficient work practices. Slaves in Georgia experienced hideous cruelties, but white slaveholders never succeeded in extinguishing the slaves’ human capacity to covet freedom. As such, the history and meaning of the cotton plantation as represented in art and in our shared visual culture remains contested, complicated, and meaningful.

In the foreground of the painting, Beattie presents a visual replica of an early Whitney gin, with an emphasis on its working parts. Beattie draws upon many earlier representations of the southern cotton plantation, including popular illustrations in nineteenth-century periodicals like Harper’s Weekly.

Image: William L. Sheppard, “The First Cotton-Gin,” Harper’s Weekly,
December 18, 1869, p. 813.

Unlike some of these images, which romanticize the work involved, Beattie uses compositional choices and juxtapositions to make the burden, labor, and foundation of the economic and agricultural system quite clear. The stooped backs of the robust yet enslaved African Americans indicate the fact that they are doing all the hard labor (picking and ginning the cotton) while a woman, a child, and a mule press the cotton into bales in the left background. Two white masters, wearing fine top hats and coats, examine the product of the labor and the gin as a white overseer checks the weight of a bag of cotton. In a nostalgic reference to the Old South, Beattie paints a late antebellum, Neoclassical mansion amid enframing trees near the center of the composition, but he places the shoulders of an enslaved man at the base of the mansion, making reference to the wealth of Georgia having been made literally and figuratively upon the backs of its enslaved peoples.

About the Ag murals

In 1956, George Beattie was commissioned to create a series of mural paintings to decorate the lower and upper lobbies of the new building for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, across the street from the state capitol. Understanding that he was working in two significant art traditions—history painting and public works on walls—Beattie  fashioned eight images: four for the lower lobby imagining the history of agriculture in Georgia and four for the upper lobby showing modern agriculture.

Image: detail, Beattie, Truck Farm, 1956.

The four images not currently on display depict modern agriculture with a truck farm, a farmers’ market, the veterinary laboratory of the Department of Agriculture, and a farmer and his county extension agent working on soil conservation techniques. Those paintings show the profound influence of the prevailing sentiments in favor of scientific agriculture. Willard Range, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, wrote at the time:

“For with industrialization and urbanization came urban markets that have made dairying, truck gardening, and livestock production profitable; and with them came mechanization, electricity, an alert interest in education, and the application of science to agriculture.” — A Century of Georgia Agriculture, 1850–1950 (University of Georgia Press, 1954)
Beattie’s history murals for the lower lobby appear relatively progressive for the segregation era in a public building near the capitol of a southern state, especially when compared with Professor Range’s own apologia, which calls the years prior to the Civil War the “Golden Age” of “King Cotton” agriculture and ignores all the basic evils of slavery.

His murals present an idealized view of agriculture in the pre–European contact life of American Indians, in the role of James Edward Oglethorpe in founding the colony of Georgia, in the labor of enslaved persons on a sugar plantation, and in their work on an antebellum cotton farm. Beattie idealizes and makes heroic, based upon traditions within Euro-American visual culture, the black and American Indian figures in his paintings. Yet, he makes very specific choices about what to exclude from his history murals. He elects not to depict the horrors—the poor conditions, beatings, dislocations of families, and the like—inflicted on enslaved persons. He also ignores tenant farming, sharecropping, and the neo-slavery of using (mostly black) convict laborers in agriculture in the years after  Reconstruction and in his own time.

Valerie Babb on the George Beattie Murals at the Georgia Museum of Art

This video features Valerie Babb, a professor of English and director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Georgia (UGA). Babb talks about the images of women and slaves, the way these four murals and the other four (which focus on then-contemporary agriculture) fit together, some of the problems in Beattie's representations and the importance of keeping even controversial art visible.

James C. Cobb on the George Beattie Murals at the Georgia Museum of Art

This video features James C. Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Research Professor in UGA's history department and the leading scholar on Georgia history (plus, some happy birds in that great garden setting on campus). Cobb discusses the context (including agricultural history) in which the murals were created and the influences that have shaped Georgia's identity over the years.

Monday, July 30, 2012

"American Indians" and Laura Weaver on the George Beattie Murals at the Georgia Museum of Art

The museum has created four videos to educate the public, provide context for the images and discuss exactly why they are problematic. This one features Laura Weaver of UGA's Institute of Native American Studies discussing Beattie's many inaccuracies in his portrayal of native people and the myth of the "noble savage."

Details from:
George Beattie (American, 1919-1997)
American Indians, 1956
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Transfer from the Georgia Capitol Museum, a department of the University of Georgia Libraries
GMOA 2011.644

Beattie’s conscious decision to begin his history murals with a depiction of American Indians from the proto-historic, pre–European contact period may be his most progressive answer to the questions of how and what to show in the works because it recognizes the role of American Indians in the history of Georgia. Prior to their contact with Europeans, the American southeastern peoples—the Creeks, Hitchiti, Cherokee, Yamacraw, Yuchi, and others—managed fields of maize, beans, and squashes supplemented in their diet by deer, turkeys, migratory waterfowl, and fish. Beattie fashions a composite scene centered on the planting, harvesting, and grinding of maize. The white oak splint baskets they use to transport the corn, typically created after European contact by northeastern peoples, and the Southwestern-style pottery represent two historical mistakes. Meanwhile, Beattie’s idealization and romanticism indict him as a product of art historical tradition and of the 1950s.

The nudity of the American Indian women remains one of the more controversial elements in any of the eight murals. Beattie creates their voluptuous figures by drawing on ancient art traditions depicting the female nude, including those of prehistoric art (for example, the Woman from Willendorf, discovered in Austria), Greek and Roman sculpture, and Renaissance painting and sculpture. Often, those images focused on the idealization of feminine beauty and the objectification of the female form and its sexuality and fertility. Early maps of the Americas sometimes also idealized American Indian women, especially in cartouche and peripheral imagery, as ancient, beautiful nude goddesses, emphasizing fertility and fecundity. Beattie’s decision, as a white male artist, reflects these visual traditions as well as sexy, 1950s-style pin-ups. Beattie’s idealization of these figures and the idyllic fashion in which he shows the agricultural life of American Indians contrast strongly with many other mural projects of the 1930s to 1950s that sometimes depict Native peoples in a less positive light.

Instagram: Murals going up

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Links to past articles and commentary

Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), April 28, 2009

AJC picture slideshow, April 28, 2009

NBC Atlanta 11, "'Not Desirable' Art Works Will Come Down, Says Incoming Commissioner," December 27, 2010

Associated Press story via "the Grio," "Slavery paintings coming down from Atlanta office," December 29, 2010

The History Blog, "New Georgia AC to remove slavery murals," December 29, 2010

Athens Banner-Herald, "Ag murals coming down," December 30, 2010

Athens Banner-Herald editorial, "Agriculture chief makes right call on murals," December 31, 2010

George Beattie (American, 1919–1997)

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, just after World War I, Beattie, the son of a diamond merchant and jewelry designer, studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art. During World War II, Beattie served in the Visual Aids Service of the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he focused on making maps and weather charts. For a time, he was stationed at Herbert Smart Airport in Macon, Georgia, where he met Virginia Harriet Lane, the daughter of a prominent Macon lawyer. They were married in 1943. Following the war, Beattie and his family lived in Atlanta, and he became an important member of the city’s postwar art scene. He first taught at the High Museum of Art, then served for a decade as the chair of creative drawing for the school of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He traveled twice to Italy, once as the recipient of a Fulbright award. He later was appointed director of the Georgia Commission for the Arts (now the Georgia Council for the Arts) and director of public service in art at Georgia State University. Beattie showed his work both in Georgia and nationally during his lifetime, including in exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Today, his images are in the  collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the High Museum of Art, among other institutions.

The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia: [here]
askart.com: [here]
fine art dealers association: [here]
The Charleston Renaissance Gallery: [here]
artfact.com: [here]

Georgia Museum of Art at UGA to display controversial agriculture murals

Quoting from the official press release:
The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia will soon display four controversial murals that were removed from the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s building in downtown Atlanta last year. In 1956, George Beattie, an Atlanta-based artist, painted a series of eight murals that hung at the Department of Agriculture until 2011. The four that will be on display at the museum Aug. 1, 2012, to Jan. 7, 2013, address the state’s history of agriculture, beginning with a representation of the American Indians who originally lived in the region and including two that address slavery.

Image: George Beattie (American, 1919-1997)
American Indians, 1956
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia;

Transfer from the Georgia Capitol Museum,
a department of the University of Georgia Libraries
GMOA 2011.644
When newly elected agriculture commissioner Gary Black took office, he decided to remove the murals from the walls of the building, saying, “I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture.”

Rather than allow the works to languish in government storage, the museum offered to take them and to mount the display to promote discussion about what the murals portray, how they portray it and why they are controversial. Chief curator and curator of American art Paul Manoguerra believes they are an important component of the state’s art history as well as of its political one.

“As the official state museum of art and as an academic institution, the Georgia Museum of Art believed it was important to preserve this aspect of Georgia’s history,” said Manoguerra. “The murals present one artist’s attempt to address the complex history of agriculture in our state in 1956.”

Undeniably idealized, the figures of the slaves are stoic and muscular, bearing more resemblance to the work of Michelangelo than to reality. The faces of all the people the murals take as their subjects are generalized, and the American Indians (both men and women) wear only loincloths, exposing and sexualizing their bodies. One that focuses on the founding of the state of Georgia, as evident from its inclusion of James Oglethorpe, relegates American Indians to background material, literally receding from view.

In an effort to contextualize the murals, the museum has produced a series of short videos, in which academics examine the works’ problematic approach to sensitive issues. James Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Research Professor in the UGA Department of History; Laura Adams Weaver from the UGA Institute of Native American Studies; Valerie Babb, professor of English and African American studies and director of the Institute for African American Studies; and Manoguerra lent their talents to the effort, discussing the context for Beattie’s murals and the complex historical and cultural issues they raised in the 1950s and today. Those videos will be mounted next to the murals, for visitors to watch, and available on the museum’s YouTube page.

“I don’t think you learn anything by hiding history. I think it’s very important to have conversations both about why these panels were painted in the first place and why they were taken down as well as what that reveals about the way we as a culture and a society have changed,” said Babb.

Born in Ohio, Beattie studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art and was trained in a social realist style. He moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, where he taught at the High Museum of Art, Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture and Georgia State University. He served as director of the Georgia Council for the Arts and created other murals in the Federal Post Office in Macon that also focus on regional history. Far from unknown, Beattie received a Fulbright award and had his work included in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution.

This exhibition is sponsored by the W. Newton Morris Charitable Foundation and the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art.

Museum Information
Partial support for the exhibitions and programs at the Georgia Museum of Art is provided by the Georgia Council for the Arts through appropriations of the Georgia General Assembly. The council is a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. Individuals, foundations and corporations provide additional museum support through their gifts to the University of Georgia Foundation. The Georgia Museum of Art is located in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex on the East Campus of the University of Georgia. The address is 90 Carlton Street, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. 30602-6719. For more information, including hours, see http://www.georgiamuseum.org or call 706.542.GMOA (4662).