Wednesday, August 15, 2012
From today's Athens Flagpole:
1950s murals showing a potentially offensive version of agricultural life are now on display—in context—at the Georgia Museum of Art.
By Blake Aued
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
If you believe George Beattie, Georgia used to be full of sexy Native Americans and happy, healthy slaves. Eight of Beatties' murals depicting the history of farming in Georgia adorned the walls of the state Department of Agriculture for more than 50 years, until newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black ordered them taken down in 2010 for being offensive. Last week, four of the murals dealing with the late-18th and early-19th centuries went back up at the Georgia Museum of Art.
What may have been offensive to someone with business in a government office becomes thought-provoking in a museum, says curator Paul Manoguerra. "I think people are used to thinking about art in a political context, in a historical context, at an art museum," he says.
Beattie painted the murals in 1956, when most whites' attitudes towards and beliefs about minorities were far different than today. Even including American Indians as a part of history was a progressive stance back then, says Communications Director Hillary Brown, who moonlights as a food writer at Flagpole. But the half-dressed, buxom women and muscular men in the painting conform to the outdated ideal of the noble savage. Everything about the painting is wrong, Brown says. "Down to the hairstyles, the clothing, it's just not accurate," she says.
Another mural depicts colonial founder James Oglethorpe and others planting crops while the Native Americans peacefully recede into the background, when, in reality, Creeks fought the European settlers tooth and nail for decades. Two other murals depict idyllic visions of slavery where African Americans work while their white masters look on. "No one's being whipped or in shackles, but it's fairly clear who's doing the labor here," Brown says.
The murals are notable for what they leave out, as well. Sharecropping is skipped over entirely. Another set of four less-controversial paintings deal with the 20th century, depicting life on a farm in the 1950s, a farmers market, a veterinary lab and soil conservation. Brown says she isn't sure whether the museum will put those on display.
Black picked up on the historical inaccuracies shortly before replacing Tommy Irvin, who held the office for more than 40 years. "I don't think they depict what Georgia's all about today," he says. "There's a couple of pictures there that are just not acceptable today."
After having the murals removed in 2011, Black placed them in storage under the supervision of the state capitol museum, a division of the University of Georgia library system. The library then transferred ownership to the Georgia Museum of Art, also a branch of UGA, Manoguerra says. No money changed hands.
The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 7, includes videos of UGA history professor Jim Cobb, Laura Weaver of the Institute of Native American Studies and Valerie Blabb, who teaches about race and gender in the English department. They're also available at YouTube.com/GMOAthens. Visitors can leave feedback in a notebook at the museum or on a Twitter feed dedicated to the exhibit. Museum officials are also planning a luncheon centered around the exhibit with the university's diversity office and a special tour sometime this fall.
In addition to their historical value, Beattie's art is worth showing in its own right, Manoguerra says. His figures, with their sturdy bodies and vague faces, show a strong Regionalist influence similar to Thomas Hart Benton, although Benton was a political leftist who never glossed over the racism and class differences in American society. Beattie worked in a tradition of wall paintings dating back to the Baroque period of the 1600s and quoted a Michaelangelo sculpture in one of his slave murals. "I think they're pretty well executed in terms of aesthetics," Manoguerra says.