One of the greatest American mural cycles of the 20th century is coming to the New Orleans Museum of Art this month.
In 1938, Atlanta-based artist Hale Woodruff received a commission from the president of Talladega College in Alabama to create a series of large-scale paintings depicting important events in African-American history for the college library.
The exhibition marks the first time the paintings have been shown in New Orleans as part of a three-year national tour.
Organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in collaboration with Talladega College, “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” will have visited eight museums across the country before the paintings return to the college in 2016.
“Not many audiences outside of Alabama have had the opportunity to see these paintings over the years,” said NOMA Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs Lisa Rotondo-McCord. “It’s great to see them getting the exposure they deserve.”
Woodruff painted the murals on canvases that were originally tacked directly onto the walls of the library. The canvases later were attached to wooden stretchers, which made them relatively easy to move and transport.
Monumental in size — two of them measure about 20 feet across, while the others are approximately 10 feet long — the six paintings demonstrate the sharp-edged Social Realist style common to many of Woodruff’s Depression-era contemporaries while exhibiting a colorful and thematic intensity of their own. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described Woodruff’s paintings as akin to “one-act plays” when they were shown in New York last year and added, “The Talladega murals teach history by making it visually riveting.”
Talladega College was founded in 1865 by two former slaves with the mission of educating freed slaves. It continues today as Alabama’s oldest historically black liberal arts college.
Perhaps the best-known paintings in the cycle depict episodes in the Amistad saga, a landmark event in the 19th-century abolitionist movement.
Woodruff’s painting of kidnapped Africans overtaking their captors on the Spanish slave ship “La Amistad” is a masterpiece of movement and drama. Completing the trilogy are subsequent images of the 1841 Supreme Court trial that authorized the return of the Africans to their homeland, and the end of the return journey itself.
Other paintings in the cycle include a depiction of the Underground Railroad and episodes in the history of Talladega College, including images of students bartering for their tuition with a variety of farm products and the construction of the campus library for which Woodruff painted the murals.
“There are many visual connections between the paintings,” Rotondo-McCord said. “It’s evident that Woodruff was thinking about how they would be viewed all together.”
Born in Illinois in 1900, Woodruff studied painting in Chicago and Paris and also spent time in Mexico, where he apprenticed under the great muralist Diego Rivera.
Indeed, Rivera’s influence is evident in the solid figures, bright colors and compositional complexity of the paintings in “Rising Up.”
Rotondo-McCord explains that some of Woodruff’s sketchbooks from his Mexico sojourn were exhibited at NOMA several years ago as part of a selection of work from the Tulane-based Amistad Research Center’s collection of African-American art.
“It’s wonderful to finally be able to see in person how Woodruff’s studies with Rivera came to fruition,” she said.
Woodruff himself wrote about the paintings toward the end of his career in the 1970s (he died at age 80 in 1980), and Rotondo-McCord said excerpts from those writings will be included in the museum’s audio guide of the exhibition, which can be accessed by cellphone.
For Woodruff, the murals were as much about personal expression as they were depictions of great historical events.
“I have been in different places, all of which have left a chain of various style in my work. But somehow I always come back to the black image,” he wrote.
“For me, every painting is a new experience. I just go ahead like I’ve never painted before in my life. This is how I work.”