“Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,” which will travel for three years after the current exhibition at the High Museum of Art closes on September 2, should further strengthen Hale Woodruff’s already substantial reputation as one of the 20th century’s most remarkable African-American artists, and one whose career and legacy need to be studied much more intensively.
The murals from Talladega College comprise two three-painting sequences: one from 1939 dealing with “The Mutiny on the Amistad” and the other, from 1942, with events before and after “The Founding of Talladega College.” Meant to be read as a continuous narrative, they were intended to educate students and the public about the college’s forgotten historical legacy: how a successful uprising aboard a slave ship in 1839 led to the founding of a missionary society that subsequently founded the college in 1867 for the education of former slaves.
Woodruff set out to tell this multi-layered story in visual terms that would capture the attention of even the most casual passer-by. The murals’ vivid color contrasts and boldly executed figuration owe much to the example of Thomas Hart Benton, but they include subtle allusions to the Renaissance paintings that Woodruff studied alongside African sculpture during his years in Paris before he returned to the United States in 1931 to teach at Atlanta University.
These paintings are on tour because the High Museum undertook their restoration in collaboration with Talladega College, and the story of their removal from the walls of Talladega’s Savery Library and meticulous cleaning and repair is worth considering in its own right. (It gets proper attention in the exhibition and even more in the excellent catalog.) But in the larger scheme of things, it is far more important that this enterprise enabled the High to reconsider the path that led to Woodruff’s murals — only part of a long, complex career, but an exceptionally important part that includes an equally ambitious mural sequence, “The Art of the Negro,” still in place in Trevor Arnett Hall at Clark Atlanta University.
The High’s exhibition concludes with a discussion of the Clark Atlanta murals (about which — full disclosure — I wrote an essay in the newly published “In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection”). It begins with a survey of Woodruff’s development as a young painter, absorbing the lessons of Cézanne and Cubism before changing course to adopt the politically committed social realism of the Great Depression.
This section of the exhibition by itself suggests how much more there is to be learned about the reach of Woodruff’s imagination. Paintings with titles such as “Shacks” (1933) and the didactically named 1942 diptych for the Atlanta Housing Authority, “Results of Poor Housing” and “Results of Good Housing,” demonstrate why the legendary Atlanta newspaper editor Ralph McGill called Woodruff’s work “worth more … than all the studies on economics and the need for slum clearance.”
But two paintings here, “Southland” from 1936 and “Mississippi Wilderness” from 1944, present rural devastation in a style that is closer to surrealism than to social realism. Although they both depict a ravaged landscape and have an implicit social message, they have more kinship with Charles Burchfield than Diego Rivera, for whom Woodruff worked briefly in the summer of 1936 as an assistant on a politically pointed mural.
So there is more, much more, to Hale Woodruff than the poignant studies of poverty and unflinching images of lynching found in his well-known linocuts from 1931 to 1946, which form an important part of the High’s exhibition. His later career as a painter who combined abstraction and African symbolism, and his period of close association with the founders of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, are irrelevant to his murals and thus are not considered in this show. But what is considered, and included on the walls, is more than sufficient to show how wide-ranging his aesthetic and intellectual explorations were. The restored Talladega murals contain enough complex compositional strategies and thematic mysteries to require well over a dozen illustrations of details in Stephanie Mayer Heydt’s brilliant catalog essay.
For the sake of future Woodruff scholarship, it may be worth noting that the study for the “Native Forms” mural in “The Art of the Negro” appears to include a masked dancer based on a photograph in André Malraux’s “The Psychology of Art,” published in 1950, the year listed as the date the study was created (and the year in which Woodruff began work on the murals themselves, which were dedicated at Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta, in 1952). This is significant because it indicates that, just as Woodruff incorporated immense numbers of small, elusive historical details into the Talladega murals — Heydt failed to find out more about the slaveholder whose “Runaway Slave” poster is being torn down in “The Underground Railroad,” for example — he continued to find fresh visual references for his murals almost up to the moment of their completion.
That fact alone could keep art historians busy for decades to come. But the murals provide their powerful message without awareness of such questions, many of the answers to which may well be unknowable. Most viewers will prefer simply to look, as Woodruff meant for the students at Talladega College to look, and as they’ve been doing ever since the murals were dedicated in 1939.