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Exhibition Purpose

February 14th, 2008 · 11 Comments

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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11 Responses to 'Exhibition Purpose'
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  • Andrea said:
    on February 22nd, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    It is interesting that the contemporary artists in the show still work with the traditional image of plantation. Are there artists who describe the plantation as institution–or is this too abstract?

  • ronny waters said:
    on February 26th, 2008 at 9:16 am

    The contemporary work seems more powerful than the older, more traditional, work to this viewer…but perhaps that is because I share the times with the artists I found most engaging. There is a lot to consider and digest.

  • Julie and Alexa said:
    on March 28th, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Interesting exhibition with a great mix of mediums and perspectives, even for someone who is not in any way an art major.

  • SJH said:
    on April 14th, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I think it is very interesting to see the same subject approached by artists who often differ in background and agenda. A Southern “state’s rights” supporter is obviously going to think about plantations in different way than a person whose ancestors were enslaved, and it’s remarkable to see these different perspcetives played out through art. Additonally, it’s interesting to consider how pieces from the past shape modern viewers’ rememberences of the institution.

  • Meaghan said:
    on April 24th, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    The exhibition to me was a venue to give people the ability to really study the objects from the United State’s slave south. A lot of these images and even objects can simply be glanced over with no more thought given to them other than being aesthetically pleasing. It is by putting all of these pieces side by side that gives the viewer a chance to compare and contrast the various differences and similarities in the work. It is through this comparison that the essence of these objects shines through. Take for example the pottery piece by Dave Drake. At first glance the observer is tempted to write the piece off as a stereotypical example of an acrylic utilitarian pot that was commonly made and used on slave plantations. By giving the pot a spot in the exhibition there is an implied importance that makes the viewers want to delve deeper into the matter and discover more than a first glance will allow. The real statement however comes on the other side with “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/ where the oven bakes and the pot biles.” Here one can see the Dave has a mastery of reading and writing. He is able to not only able to write out the saying on the pot, but the rhyming of the two lines shows an advanced understanding of grammatical structure. This struck me as absolutely fascinating. In South Carolina at this time it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write, and yet it is apparent by this pot that Dave can do both these things. Dave writing this poem on the side of the pot is an active resistance to the constraints of slavery. He is basically saying to white society that despite your best efforts I have managed to learn to read and write. Without the atmosphere that the exhibition establishes, I would probably been one of those viewer that glanced over this piece, missing its true brilliance.

  • Scott said:
    on April 28th, 2008 at 10:15 am

    Interesting to compare the differences between the old and the new…old plantation images tending to focus on the beautiful side of plantation life with the view of the landcape from a visitors perspective and choosing not to focus on the ugly side of the plantation life (slaves, etc.). Interesting to see the newer pictures depicting the decaying homes and also paintings that make a genuine effort to show the dual side to the plantation life.

  • Chase said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    Looking back on the pieces in the exhibition, the categorization laid out above is helpful to place certain images and works into the context of history. At the exhibit, it isn’t as evident that each of the pieces came from very divergent time periods, although the art is physically arranged to suggest that.
    I find it interesting how the subject matter and messages within the works are as diverse as these two settings: antebellum and post Civil War. For me, it was very striking how emotionally stimulating those painted after the War really were in comparison to the plainer antebellum plantation paintings. Clearly, both have different motives and the artistic techniques conjure emotions that are equally distinct.

  • Samantha Powell said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    I thought that the pieces presented within this exibition were truly remarkable in showing the differing landscapes of slavery. It posits a necessary conversation about the impact of slavery to society that needs to be had. The UVA community is very fortunate to have such pieces showcased within such a historical institution.

  • Jason James said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    When viewing art, I believe perspective means everything – not only the perspective of the artist, but the perspective of the person viewing the painting. The same images that artists may use to depict suffering in one generation may be used in next to depict strength and vice versa. The interpretation of the painting by its viewer may also change over time and across space. I think that we saw this throughout the exhibition and in the different themes it highlighted.

  • rgg said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 6:57 am

    I think it is interesting to see the plantation through a variety of pieces, both paintings and cultural pieces that were more utilitarian. To study a plantation is not to just focus on a house and romanticize stereotypes of the South. This exhibit really delves into the heart of the South with work from blacks and whites, and especially canvasses that show the ever evolving, interpretative nature of the social landscape of slavery. This exhibit is situated perfectly at UVA as the conundrum of race and race relations plagued Thomas Jefferson for much of his life. My question is now focused on the what now? How do we keep this art alive and ensure that these pieces still have a voice in spaces outside academia? I think a book accompanying this collection is an excellent way to spread the message of how integral artistic expression is to our understanding of history. Bravo on a very well designed book. It’s almost as good as the collection in person! Also, I think it is fantastic and important to mention that the name of the exhibition is the “Landscape of Slavery” not the “Landscape of the South.” This makes all the difference in being from the South, because not all things Southern are oppressive and backward. Great attention to detail throughout this exhibit. Thank you for providing this opportunity to students as well as the public.

  • MAL said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    In response to February 26 post, I found many of the older works exceedingly powerful. Often, this was based on what was not explicit in the work itself. Several of the newer images are full of symbolism and are obviously wonderful and thought-provoking, but for me, it was more interesting to see what people in past generations chose to represent (as well as what they chose not to represent).