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March 4th, 2008

Exhibition Catalogue


Stephen G. Hoffius
Coeditor, Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art

The Ruins of Windsor by Eudora Welty

After three years of editing with Angela D. Mack, the catalogue for Landscape of Slavery, I’m eager to see how the exhibition differs from the book. We took the six essays and Angela’s introduction and tried to fit them together, acknowledging that at times the essayists disagreed with each other, sometimes complemented each other, sometimes expanded each other’s points. But they’re all text with illustrations. The show is all illustrations with text panels. Do viewers get totally different messages from those picked up by readers of the catalogue? Which is more powerful, or more meaningful? The visceral experience of walking through the show or the intellectual spark of reading scholars’ analyses?

I know the visual experience enhances the catalogue, just as the catalogue enhances a trip to the exhibition. But I’d love to hear from people who have delved into both: how are the experiences different, how the same? How is each uplifting or depressing or annoying or exciting? How do they fit into what people have studied about art history or southern history or folklore or anthropology… or whatever?

   

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February 28th, 2008

Some Thoughts on Writing about Plantations


Alexis L. Boylan
assistant professor of art history,
University of Tennessee

I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to “Landscape of Slavery,” for several reasons. First off, to be included with such an esteemed group of scholars was an honor. We also represent a diversity of methodologies in regard to how we approach images. This is an amazing moment in terms of the study of art history, with certain scholars emphasizing the history that these images illustrate, while others emphasize the intentions of the artist, and some spend more time considering how the these images shape our culture and how audiences have absorbed or rejected the ideas about race, nationalism, and landscape offered by these objects. This catalogue encourages the reader to not only interrogate the images, but to also interrogate the questions we ask of images.

I was also excited to have the opportunity to write about Winslow Homer’s A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876. I had taught this painting for years and it is an image that always haunted me. I have yet to really decide for myself what has happened in this small room between these people. It is a typical work by Homer in the sense that he refuses to give simple, trite, or smug resolutions to the hard work of repairing the country after the Civil War. He wants the viewer to hover on the awkward, and heavy weight of history that all bodies carry.

I kept this painting in mind when I went recently to the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum in Atlanta, GA where Mitchell wrote her 1936 bestseller Gone With the Wind. The book itself was a bit of a fluke; Mitchell had an injury that limited her mobility and she wrote the book as a distraction to pass the time. And yet this book, perhaps more than other work of art, cemented a particular version of plantation life into the American psyche. It is a more simplistic image than the one Homer paints; in Mitchell’s South everyone knows their place and the enslaved stand by and protect their mistresses instead of staring at them coldly. But Mitchell’s work keeps the reader trapped in a made-up past, looping in a racist, nostalgic haze eternally. But Homer, I think, offers some hope. For while all of his figures stand almost frozen, we have to imagine at some point, soon perhaps, someone will have to make a move, the moment of tension will have to be broken, and we can all move forward again.

   

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Posted in: Art, Cultural Landscape, Plantation, Race Relations
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February 14th, 2008

Exhibition Purpose


Angela Mack
deputy director for curatorial affairs,
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina

The Ruins of Windsor by Eudora Welty
  Eudora Welty, 1909-2001
The Ruins of Windsor, ca. 1935
Photograph, 13 1/2 x 12 5/8 inches
© Eudora Welty, LLC; Eudora Welty
Collection – Mississippi Department of
Archives and History
  See larger image >

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art afforded the opportunity to look at a wide range of images that relate to plantation life in the US South. Of course, this was not new material to me as longtime curator at the Gibbes. Previous work on exhibitions and publications concerning artists such as Thomas Coram (1756-1811), Charles Fraser (1782-1860), William Aiken Walker (1838-1821)and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958), who have extensive representation in the collection, and thorough study of John Michael Vlach’s 2002 book entitled The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings, in which three of the five artists examined are from Charleston, were the catalysts for the present discussion.

However, close study of the broader subject matter quickly revealed that art historians had not, as yet, examined extensively the material from their perspective, nor had there been any attempt to understand potential influences on contemporary art. Toward that end Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art aims to expand on previous scholarship and explore the aesthetic motives and social uses of works of art from the eighteenth century through the present that feature plantations.

As a result of this investigation, a few generalities may be observed: firstly and not surprisingly, that early plantation imagery is an outgrowth of the British estate view that celebrated patrons’ accumulated wealth using the artistic tenants set forth by the landscape tradition; secondly, that after the Civil War toiling ex-slaves were incorporated into images of plantations in an effort to memorialize a way of life that was perceived by northern and southern patrons as slipping away; and thirdly, that certain features in 18th and 19th century plantation imagery such as stooping African-Americans, specific crops (cotton, tobacco, or rice) or dilapidated shacks are used by later artists to evoke the plantation.

   

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February 14th, 2008

What does “plantation” mean today?


Maurie McInnis
director of American Studies and
associate professor of Art History, University of Virginia

View of Mulberry, House and Street by Thomas Coram
  Thomas Coram, 1756–1811
View of Mulberry, House and Street,
ca. 1800
Oil on paper, 4 1/19 x 6 1/16 inches
Gibbes Museum of Art
  See larger image >

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art brings together an astonishing array of images spanning more than two hundred years. Despite great stylistic divergence, the thematic consistency results in an extended conversation about the meaning of the plantation across chronological and cultural divides. In the exhibition, we wanted both to interrogate the historical genesis of the image of the plantation as well as explore its continuing resonance. Our strategy for this was to seek a variety of perspectives on what “plantation” has meant at different times and to different artists. In many minds the historical plantation is synonymous with slavery. Yet, we did not want to do an exhibition about slavery broadly defined, but rather one more narrowly dealing with the plantation as a real place, an imagined place, and a remembered place.

As an art historian whose research is centered on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South, I have long thought about these works in terms of what they reveal about earlier attitudes about race, slavery, and politics. Now that the exhibition is up and the works are together for the first time, I am struck by the conversation that is going on between the artists of the recent past and the artists of the nineteenth century. Deeply conversant with both the history and the images of the past, the contemporary artists in the exhibition confront the visual past to explore the legacy of plantation slavery.

The exhibition explores the plantation as a historical place. It is a term, however, that is still very much alive in contemporary rhetoric, often with conflicting meanings. For example, “plantation” is used to describe an imbalance of power, like when Hillary Clinton described Congress as a plantation. Simultaneously, there is another definition at play, one that implies exclusivity. Countless real estate developments rely on “plantation” in the title to suggest some sort of grace and refinement. For your new plantation home you can buy plantation furniture and shade yourself from the sun with plantation shutters. I am struck by these divergent perspectives, both in the art and in the language, and I invite others to share their thoughts on the different perspectives of what “plantation” means.

   

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Posted in: Cultural Landscape, Curators' Comments, Plantation, Race Relations
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February 14th, 2008

About the Catalogue

The Ruins of Windsor by Eudora Welty

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art
Edited by Angela D. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffius
University of South Carolina Press, Published in Cooperation with the Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association, 2008

Accompanying the exhibition Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art, is this publication of the same name. This book offers insight into historical and contemporary considerations in art and social history regarding the plantation. The book features seventy-seven color plates and sixteen black and white illustrations which augment seven essays. Book contributors are Alexis L. Boylan, Michael D. Harris, Leslie King-Hammond, Angela D. Mack, Maurie D. McInnis, Roberta Sokolitz and John Michael Vlach. The book will be available at the exhibition locations.

   

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Posted in: Architecture, Art, Artists, Cultural Landscape, Curators' Comments, Plantation, Race Relations
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