The Champion and the Corpse: Art and Identity in Richmond, 1950

By Aiello, Thomas | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Champion and the Corpse: Art and Identity in Richmond, 1950


Aiello, Thomas, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Two men, a Richmond doctor and a New York museum curator, strolled through the quiet halls of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in late April 1950, where they found an image of a bright and vibrant corpse, seemingly rotting in ribbons of technicolor paint. Aline Louchheim, art critic for the New York Times, later described the piece as the "miraculously painted iridescence of decay." The doctor was skeptical of the work's value. He turned to the curator and asked, "What do you think of it as a cadaver?" The curator took the question in stride. The doctor was neither the first nor the last patron to voice his displeasure. He was patient but direct. "And what do you think of it as a picture?"1

The exchange took place at the beginning of the controversial VMFA exhibition American Painting - 1950, and it serves to encapsulate the complex negotiation that was the acculturative process of modern art's move into Richmond. There was southern skepticism of northern intrusion. There was doubt about the subject matter's appropriateness, as well as about its status as legitimate art. Additionally, Virginians expressed concerns that they would be the unwitting hostages of an elitist artistic intellectual community that had somehow lost its way. They grappled with the relationship between publicly funded exhibitions and publicly unpopular art. And, more broadly, they manifested a unique and particularly southern version of what Michael Kammen has termed "visual shock."2

In 1919, long before that shock would make itself manifest, John Barton Payne, former government official and head of the American Red Cross, donated his artwork to the state of Virginia, thereby beginning the collection that would become the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The museum itself would open to the public fifteen years later in 1934, the first state museum in the United States.3 Beginning in 1938, the VMFA began conducting biennial exhibitions, which were designed to supply a survey of the current state of American painting to a Virginia population that might not otherwise be aware of any artistic evolution. These events took place every two years, starting in 1938, with a respite during World War II. Before 1950, the museum director and a selection jury chose the content of these biennial exhibitions. The process, however, often came as a compromise. As a remedy, new museum director Leslie Cheek commissioned James Johnson Sweeney to select the representative paintings for the museum's 1950 biennial, to direct the exhibition, and to deliver a series of lectures in Richmond and its surrounding areas as a visiting scholar with the Richmond Area University Center. The exhibition opened on 22 April.4

Sweeney was certainly qualified. The Brooklyn native studied at Georgetown before moving on to graduate work at Cambridge and the Sorbonne. He had served as both the director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and the vice president of the International Art Critics Association. He was the author of numerous books on various artists and artistic movements.5

"The poet," Sweeney argued in the opening essay of the 1950 exhibition catalog, "in dealing with his own time must see that language does not petrify in his hands. This is also the responsibility of the painter." Tradition, too, had its place, and the best art was a product of the tension between tradition and innovation.

A painting, like any other true work of art, is essentially a metaphor of structure. Relations are more real and important than the things they relate. And the work of art which introduces us through a metaphor in its own terms line, color, and space, in the case of painting - to a fresh, or at any rate unfamiliar, configuration of relationships in nature is a new "noun," an expansion of human expression.

Sweeney ended his catalog essay with hope. "The road ahead," he wrote, "is clear."6

But the road ahead was anything but clear. …

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