Art in Mississippi

By Reed, Dale Volberg | Southern Cultures, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Art in Mississippi


Reed, Dale Volberg, Southern Cultures


Art in Mississippi 1720-1980 By Patti Carr Black University Press of Mississippi, 1998 359 pp. Cloth, $60.00

H. L. Mencken wrote in 1917 that "when you come to ... painters, sculptors, architects, and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf," and he was generally assumed to be correct. Seventy-three years later William Gerdts explained in the second volume of his masterly Art Across America that "the art of the South has, until recently, been terra incognita.... Post-Civil War artistic activity has not only been ignored but even denied, presumed to have been a victim of the war's devastation. It has only been in the past decade that a fair evaluation of the art of the South has begun." Gerdts also added that southern art had not yet been absorbed into mainstream American art history and art markets. Southern art history was like a huge puzzle with all the pieces face down. Gradually, the pieces are being turned up, the edges are being found, and the picture is coming clear. The process began slowly but has been accelerating of late. Patti Cart Black's Art in Mississippi 1720-1980 and Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds's To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historical Black Colleges and Universities are two of the most recent attempts to fill in the gaps.

The first show of southern art to gain national attention was at the Corcoran in 1960. It included work by sixty artists--124 paintings (c. 1710 to the 1860s) mostly done in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia. There was then a long dry spell until 1983, when the Virginia Museum opened Painting in the South: 1564-1980 and Jessie Poesch published her magisterial Art of the Old South. Interest increased rapidly after that. In 1984 Art and Artists of the South: The Robert P. Coggins Collection opened in Columbia, South Carolina, and traveled the South for over two years. In 1985 dealer Robert Hicklin organized the touring show The South on Paper. Also in 1985 the Greenville County (South Carolina) Museum made the inspired decision to concentrate on southern art; since then it has offered a succession of shows highlighting the work of southern artists and has built a fine permanent collection. In 1989 William S. Morris III bought the Coggins collection, the basis for the Morris Museum of Art, which opened in Augusta in 1992 and which is devoted entirely to southern art. Its first publication, A Southern Collection, by Estill Curtis Pennington, contains an extensive survey of the study of southern art to 1992. Other notable additions to the canon include Lisa Howorth's beautiful book The South: A Treasury of Art and Literature (1993) and a spate of other books by Pennington. As a result of all this activity, when Gerdts wrote his introduction to Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection in 1995, he made the stunning assertion that his "library houses, by region, more substantial studies of southern art ... than of any other region." The holes in the puzzle have continued to be filled in, notably with the additions of Art in the American South: Works from the Ogden Collection (1996) and the Georgia Museum of Art's The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930-1946 (1996).

Now we have two excellent books that help to reveal significant areas of the panorama of southern art. The first, Patti Carr Black's Art in Mississippi: 1730-1980, is, as one would expect, beautiful. But it is also scholarly, well written, and thorough. Eventually it will need updating, but I cannot imagine that it will ever have to be replaced or even seriously revised. It covers nearly every aspect of vernacular and highbrow art, architecture, and crafts. The author is well read in literature and history, and she skillfully places the art in context. The book will be an essential reference tool, but it is also a pleasure to read (except for the dull but useful lists inevitable in such a survey). …

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