Indepth Arts News: |
"ROBERT GWATHMEY: MASTER PAINTER"
2000-03-14 until 2000-05-28
Telfair Art Museum
USA United States of America
Deeply committed to the idea that art could influence morality, improve the lives of less fortunate
people, specifically African Americans, and that art could offer a statement of hope, Robert Gwathmey
turned his sympathetic eye to the lives of ordinary people.
Tenant farmers and sharecroppers of
the rural South evoked Gwathmey's
inherent sense of social injustice. He
was intimately familiar with the lives
of poor African-American farmers.
Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1903,
Gwathmey witnessed conditions of
poverty and segregation that were then
prevalent. In addition to spending time
with relatives on the family farm in
rural Virginia, Gwathmey, along with
his wife and son, worked for three
months on a farm through a
fellowship from the Rosenwald
Foundation, to experience first-hand
the lives of poor, rural
Gwathmey's signature style is easily recognized. Influenced by Pablo Picasso, Gwathmey adapted the
Cubist style for his narrative expression. Space is flattened into large areas of unmodulated color, as
seen in Isolation. The artist outlines figural and compositional elements with black, thus making the
painting appear similar to a stained glass window. Here, the figures are stooped with age, poverty and
lives of hard labor.
Gwathmey evokes a sense of compassion in his viewers through the dignified way he portrayed these
figures. Painted in 1977, near the end of a career that began in the late 1930s and lasted until the early
1980s, this painting includes a portrait of the artist as the shabbily dressed old man in the center,
signaling the artist's turn from satirical works to those with a more autobiographical nature.
One of Gwathmey's most famous images is Portrait of a Farmer's Wife, c. 1951. Gwathmey's
delight in an unconventional use of color is visible in this painting. Bright patterns and contrasting
hues delighted Gwathmey's aesthetic sense and represented the life he witnessed in the rural South.
With hand-me-down, mis-matched clothes, tenant farmers and sharecroppers worked the land, making
do with the apparel they had available to them. Bright clothing was one way Gwathmey expressed his
disdain for people of privilege.
In many works, Gwathmey mocked pompous and pretentious people, and his moral, visual satires
were one means to affect social change. By portraying African Americans with grace and dignity, as
humans rather than caricatures, Gwathmey sought to combat the racism of his day. As one of this
country's important Social Realists, Gwathmey accomplished his desire to create art that could change
people's lives. Some sixty works, ranging in date from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s represent
Gwathmey's oeuvre of oils, silkscreens, watercolors and drawings. On view from March 14 to May
28, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that will be for sale at the museum. Gwathmey
expert Michael Kammen will present the opening lecture on Tuesday, March 21 at 7 p.m. Organized
by the Butler Institute of American Art.