I wrote recently about jaw-dropping art history moments. For me, there have only been three: Charles Demuth (the church spire behind his house), Edouard Manet (a still life of lilacs in a glass vase), and Velasquez (Las Meninas). Even more rare is getting goosebumps. Today’s post is about possibly my only goosebumpy moment, which has to do with Charles White.
White, an African American artist, was the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018–19. Curated by Esther Adler, the show began its run at the Art Institute of Chicago, and finished it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The BMA has a linoleum cut print by White called Voice of Jericho, 1958. It’s a large print at 39 x 21 inches and shows Harry Belafonte singing. This is a print that I used constantly in the BMA’s studyroom for classes. We would talk about whether the figure was yelling out loud or internally, silently, or if he was singing. And we’d talk and about the portrayal of the sound or silence, which swirls up from the figure to fill more than half the image area. Even if the students were not familiar with Harry Belafonte (he was part of my childhood—one of the first songs I learned on guitar was Jamaica Farewell), the image conveys an immense amount of emotion. And the kids seemed to get it.
I made a point of getting to MoMA to see the Charles White exhibition, which was gorgeous. It was during New York Print Week when print curators, dealers, collectors, artists, and publishers descend on the City for four print fairs and a ton of attending programming. As usual, Tru Ludwig was with me. Tru is an artist who also teaches History of Prints at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Voice of Jericho is a staple in that class. I was surprised not to find the BMA print on the walls of the MoMA exhibition—it turned out it had been in Chicago for the first venue, but not included in the second in NY. But the drawing on which it is based was there. (It is owned by Belafonte and his wife.) I had not seen it before and was struck by its gloriousness. But I came away feeling that the print says it better. The drawing includes more of the singer’s figure set on a dark background that lacks the dynamism of the linoleum cut. But in both images Belafonte’s head is cocked back, his mouth open in song, and his neck tensed in the effort. It has always struck me as a posture of potential energy, as if Belafonte is carefully balancing control of performance and his explosive emotions.
Here comes the goosebumps part, which were accompanied by welling tears. As part of the MoMA installation, there was a monitor looping video of Harry Belafonte performing the song Bald Headed Woman, which opened his television special, Tonight with Belafonte, in 1959. (It also is on Belafonte’s album Swing Dat Hammer and curiously, was covered by the Kinks and The Who.) A link to the television special is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otw0FtXjOKc&t=507s. It’s the first song Belafonte performs, but doesn’t begin until the 4:40 mark. As Tru and I stood there watching, suddenly the whole thing came together. Belafonte’s performance is mesmerizing and when he reaches for a high note, his head cocks back exactly as White portrayed him in the drawing and print. Goosebumps and tears.
Charles White (American, 1918–1979)
Voice of Jericho (Folksinger), 1958
Sheet: 1003 x 540 mm. (39 1/2 x 21 1/4 in.)
Image: 917 x 458 mm. (36 1/8 x 18 1/16 in.)
Baltimore Museum of Art: Friends of Art Fund, 1999.84
Charles White (American, 1918–1979)
Folksinger (Voice of Jericho: Portrait of Harry Belafonte), 1957
Ink and colored ink with white additions
132 x 865 mm. (52 x 34 in.)
Collection Pamela and Harry Belafonte
© The Charles White Archives
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Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.