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Indepth Arts News:

"ROBERT GWATHMEY: MASTER PAINTER"
2000-03-14 until 2000-05-28
Telfair Art Museum
Savannah, GA, 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 African-Americans.

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.


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