Thursday, April 19, 2018

COLLECTING 101 | Head of a Man

Alexandra Davis ‘18 (Environmental Science and Policy), Moira Anderson ‘19 (Chemistry), Rose Hatem ‘20 (Greek) participated in the J-Term class Collecting 101, which allowed students to directly participate in researching and purchasing a work on paper for the SCMA collection. Their group’s winning proposal resulted in the purchase of Emma Cartwright Bourne’s 1940 lithograph Head of a Man. In the following post Rose shares the proposal and reflects on her experience in the course.

Emma Cartwright Bourne. American (1906 - 1986).  Head of a Man, ca. 1940. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, slightly textured, cream-colored paper. Purchased through the efforts of students in the class "Collecting 101," January 2018. SC 2018:10-3.

I took this class because I had just joined the museums concentration, and I wanted to learn more about museum careers. Right now I am in the process of applying to summer internships at different museums, and having learned a little bit about how museums work and what different positions might entail has been super helpful for me. We had some assigned readings and short writing assignments about how collecting works, and specifically the Lang collection at the SCMA, which is a collection of prints by overlooked women printmakers. The class was a tiny overview of museums combined with a more in-depth look at the specific nature of print collecting. I really wanted my group to choose Head of a Man--I just loved the personality of the piece right away.

Historical Context:

It is very difficult to find any biographical information about Emma Cartwright Bourne. We know that she was an African American artist, and we do know something about the context in which she worked. The 1930s and early 1940s were a bleak time for most Americans, but even more so for Black Americans. Yet, even at a time when employment was hard to come by and Black artists had little precedent, new opportunities came with Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired artists for the Federal Art Project, or FAP, as one branch of their efforts to combat unemployment.The group of artists who were part of the FAP worked on research, education, and production of art in many different media such as painting, sculpture, photography and the graphic arts. Through WPA funding, artists gained access to expensive materials, which made printmaking (generally an equipment-heavy and community-based medium) a possibility even for the underprivileged. The WPA also established community art centers, as well as a graphics workshop in Philadelphia. This meant that, while many African Americans were at a moment of deep cultural discouragement, they had access to artistic means of expression that they had not had in the past. Another Black artist and lithographer of the time, John Woodrow Wilson, said in a 1992 interview, “When I look back on it, I guess what I was trying to do was make the invisible man visible, to build into these images such power and impact that you couldn't ignore them.” Head of a Man does exactly this, rendering an anonymous African American with captivating sympathy and dignity.

The Art Students League

Although we do not know a lot about Bourne’s background, Susan Teller tells us that she is fairly certain that this piece was produced at The Arts Students League. The Arts Students League of New York was founded in 1870 by a group of students training to be artists at the National Academy of Design in New York. These students, many of whom were women, wanted to break free from the conservative ideals of the Academy, which they saw as unsympathetic to the new ideas and techniques of art. Once established, the League drew more and more female artists and students, many of whom took over leading roles in the administration of the League, maintaining the program and its curriculum. Over the years, the League has remained focused on the founding principles of the first class: emphasizing the importance of artistic creativity, maintaining the greatest respect for artists who devote their lives to art, and educating students in the process of making art in an environment in which anyone who wishes to pursue an art education can realize his or her full potential.  Even to this day, the League still has no set curriculum, degree, or diplomas; instead it has created a community where artists can gain hands-on experience in the studio and explore their identities as artists. 

The WPA and its Prints

The Works Project Administration was created as part of the New Deal after the Great Depression in order to create jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans struggling to provide for their families. One branch of the WPA created a group for arts-related projects called the Federal Art Project (FAP), creating funds for artists, musicians, writers and actors in various art projects across the country. This project was a part of the New Deal because much of the administration responsible for its creation believed that art should be a part of everyone’s life, not just for the elite class in order to enrich and embolden people. While the main objective was to combat unemployment, the group of artists who were part of the FAP did research and educated school children as well as produced art in many different media such as painting, sculpture, photography and the graphic arts. There were several popular graphic arts workshops in large cities such as Philadelphia and New York, where Black families would send their children to receive art instruction.

Context in the Collection and Course Offerings

The collection currently includes no works by Bourne. Head of a Man would complement the existing collection as it falls at the tail end of the time period covered in the Lang collection and showcases a thus far unrepresented artist. The Prints section of the Collecting Plan (2011-2016) recommends that the museum “seek works that explore encounters and intersections between cultures, as well as those that document...socio-political causes, socio-economic issues or those that concern institutional critique.”Head of a Man uses an individual portrait to exemplify a moment of great socio-political and socio-economic trouble, for Americans at large and more particularly for the African-American community. As well as its subject, the story behind the work’s creation also represents a particular time, place and social narrative: the Great Depression was a short period in history in which African American women had a window of opportunity in which to produce art.

Furthermore, it would be valuable to compare the techniques and subject matter of Bourne’s work with that of the handful of 20th century African American female printmakers whose work still exists today. As Smith College Professor of Africana Studies Kevin Quashie notes, “I didn't know Emma Cartwright Bourne's work before [our correspondence], though I am glad to take in this striking piece. It actually reminds me of Elizabeth Catlett's The Negro Woman series (linoleum cuts), in a way, in the starkness of the graphic lines/style...which is from that era.” The collection has one print by Elizabeth Catlett already, and there are two more within the Five Colleges’ collections.Head of a Man is a piece that highlights the meticulous and affectionate work of a forgotten African American woman who was shattering the racial and gender barriers of the historically white and, despite its progressiveness, still male-dominated Art Students League.

There are also connections to be drawn between Head of a Man and other, more contemporary works in the collection as a whole. One artist who explores similar themes is Whitfield Lovell, a living artist known for his portraits of African Americans from between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights era. SCMA has three of Lovell’s pieces: a sculpture, a lithograph, and a drawing. The drawing,Kin XXXII (Run Like the Wind), made in 2008,is particularly similar to Head of a Man. It depicts an unknown African American woman, with a somber, teary-eyed expression, juxtaposed with a crown of barbed wire. While her face is drawn in warm detail, the collar of her shirt is just faintly sketched out. Professor Kevin Quashie writes that the anonymous subjects of Lovell’s Kin series are “people who look like people...They look familiar to us even if it is rare to see black faces represented in such a studied, elegant way.”

From a teaching perspective this piece could be utilized across departments, including History, Africana Studies, and Art History, in courses which center the lived experiences of both enslaved and free African Americans and especially African American women. Relevant courses from upcoming and past semesters include Race, Feminism and Resistance Movements for Social Change which “explores the historical and theoretical perspectives of African American women from the time of slavery to the post-civil rights era… and examines how black women shaped and were shaped by the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality in American culture;”History of Afro-American People to 1960which examines the “history of the Afro-American people in the United States... and how Africans influenced virtually every aspect of U.S. society;” and Race, Gender and United States Citizenship, 1776–1861, which analyzes “the historical realities, social movements, cultural expression and political debates that shaped U.S. citizenship, from the hope of liberty and equality to the exclusion of marginalized groups that made whiteness, maleness and native birth synonymous with Americanness.” Furthermore, the history department offers a seminar course on Problems in 19th Century United States History: A Gendered Reading of the WPA Slave Interviews,in which students write a research paper using the interviews commissioned by the WPA as a central source. We suggest that in addition to written work, the art pieces of WPA artists like Bourne could enrich this course.

Sources

 Collections Database, museums.fivecolleges.edu/info.php?s=whitfield.

 “Course Search.” Smith College, www.smith.edu/academics/academic-program/curriculum/course-search?term=Fall%2B2017.

Ehrmann, Thierry. “Auction Results for Emma Cartwright BOURNE in Print-Multiple.”Auctionsfor Print-Multiple by Emma Cartwright BOURNE: Sold Lots by Emma Cartwright BOURNEArtprice.com,www.artprice.com/artist/204478/emma-cartwright-bourne/lots/pasts/2/print-multiple.

 Grimes, William. “The Art of Black Printmakers: Making Life Real.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Dec. 1992, www.nytimes.com/1992/12/21/news/the-art-of-black-printmakers-making-life-real.html.

 “The History of the Art Students League of New York – The Art Students League.” The Art Students League, www.theartstudentsleague.org/history-art-students-league-new-york/.

 Lovell, Whitfield, et al.Whitfield Lovell - Kin. Skira Rizzoli, 2016.

 Library of Congress Database: WPA: Posters http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/wpapos/background.html

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