Saturday, February 15, 2014

Denmark Vesey (born Telemaque)

Black Charlestonian Denmark Vesey (born Telemaque) was hanged at dawn in 1822, accused of organizing and very nearly executing what would have been the largest slave revolt in US history. His story is still controversial today, and I've chosen him as my latest subject for a portrait drawing for Black History Month:

Denmark Vesey by Ciana Pullen
Denmark Vesey, by Ciana Pullen, 2014. Charcoal, 14 x 17." Drawn entirely from imagination. You may reproduce this image for noncommercial purposes only, and you must include easily visible accreditation (i.e. my name) and a link back to this site. [Image description follows at the end of this post.]

He was born in St. Thomas or possibly Africa in 1767 and spent his youth enslaved on the island until one day in 1781, at age 14, when he was pulled aside and marched at gunpoint with 300 other enslaved people to the slave ship of Captain Joseph Vesey.

Vesey sold Telemaque for hard labor on a sugar-cane plantation in French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), but his purchaser forced Vesey to take the boy back when they discovered his epilleptic fits (possibly faked, as they were never known to recur). Vesey, then 34 years old, enjoyed his company, and possibly because his own parents had died when he was the boy's age, he acted as both master and guardian for Telemaque, who was appropriately named for the son of seafaring explorer Odysseus. He made Telemaque his personal assistant and interpreter for the next three years on the ship, teaching him to read and write.

Captain Vesey, born in Bermuda, had previously purchased land in Charleston and fought as a Carolinian on behalf of the rebelling Patriots in the American Revolution. Recognized as a courageous fighter whose expertise of the coastline allowed for clandestine navigation, Vesey would likely have shared these stories with Telemaque. As shocking as Telemaque's 1822 trial for insurrection would later be, one must remember that in 1781-3 he was entering an American society where just a few short years before, ordinary people had openly engaged in guerrilla warfare to overthrow their colonial overlords, in which many Black people had participated.

Captain Vesey settled in Charleston, SC, in 1783, which was then a major port for the slave trade, to become a ship chandler and slave broker. By this time Telemaque was called Denmark Vesey.

Urban slave life in Charleston was nothing like plantation life or even slavery in other Southern cities. The 1820 Census listed only 11,654 White people in the City, outnumbered by 12,652 enslaved and 1,475 free Black people, and surrounded by many tens of thousands of rural plantation slaves. A mere 8-9% of those White people controlled Charleston's wealth and political power. By Vesey's arrival a state of fear and constant subjugation of Black people had gripped the city for nearly a century.

Enslaved Black people and White people lived in close quarters, as crowded narrow plots of land contained mansions or smaller rowhouses for "the Family" of White people with slave quarters standing separately in the back. Strict codes  of behavior for "house slaves" ensured the two never intermingled, and that a free neighborhood could double as a police state for Black people.

Aiken-Rhett slave quarters exterior
The exterior of the Aiken-Rhett House slave quarters, built 1820. An unusually "state of the art" building for the grand house, its arrangement is nonetheless customary for tightly packed, highly regimented urban slave dwellings. Living quarters were on the second floor; kitchen and washrooms were ground floor. [Image shows a long two-story grey stucco building with forest green windows and shutters lining it like a prison]. Photo via.

Aiken-Rhett House slave quarters interior
The interior of the bare-bones Aiken-Rhett House slave quarters (or barracks, really). People would have been cram-packed into these rooms. Privacy was scarce. Photo via.
For instance, regulations for enslaved Black people included strict curfews and laws against walking with a cane unless infirm, wearing nice clothes in public, playing an instrument, smoking, cursing, dancing without city council or owners' approval, or making any "joyful demonstration." Slaves were often sent out to workhouses for "corrections," where people were forced to work a treadmill, placed in irons or whipped, a service for which the slave-owner paid $0.25.

Black man with scars from whipping
A man in a historic photograph reveals the scars on his back from whipping. Photo via.

Charleston slave auction
Illustration of a slave auction in Charleston (I think I recognize this street corner as a modern day bus stop). [Historic illustration shows the turmoil of a crowded auction and a Black family and White auctioneer on a platform on the sidewalk].
Some owners "hired out" their enslaved skilled workers and craftsmen, who were either rented directly from their owners by other free people and allowed, sometimes, to live independently while working these jobs, or enslaved skilled workers who essentially paid to lease their own bodies or time from their "masters" and earned their own money temporarily. The second practice, called "self-hire," was swiftly outlawed as subversive, but widely practised anyway. So convenient did slave owners find the practice, "badge laws" were enacted to regulate it by issuing heavily taxed metal tags to self-hirers. (Today the surviving metal badges are subject to a controversial high-priced private commodities trade, as local artist Ben Sivells stopped by to inform me while I drew Vesey's portrait at the Farmer's Market.) Other enslaved people ran the affairs of a part of their "master's" property or "trust," effectively living independently, though this was also illegal. This was sometimes practised by free Black people who were forced to hold friends or family nominally as slaves, even husbands and wives, constituting a substantial minority of the enslaved people owned by wealthy free Black people.

Joseph Vesey allowed Denmark to practice self-hire as a carpenter until November 9, 1799, when Denmark won $1500 in a street lottery and bought his freedom. I repeat, he won $1500 in a street lottery and bought his freedom.

Map of Charleston 1849
Map of Charleston, 1849. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Vesey set up his own business as a carpenter, which would become enormously successful with a large Black clientele, and moved to an area of the Charleston Peninsula called the Neck. In those days Boundary Street (modern day Calhoun) was the official City Limits, but people had begun settling north of Boundary anyway. With official police and patrol jurisdiction north of Boundary patchy and unsure, and with abundant cheap land, working class White people, free Black people and some Native American people settled the new reputedly lawless area. White citizens soon formed their own night patrol in parts of the Neck.


Denmark Vesey House
The Denmark Vesey House, 56 Bull Street (near the Coming Street neighborhood of free Black residents), was identified in the 1970s and is still listed as a historic landmark. However in the 1980s archivists found it was built in the 1830s-50s and likely five houses down from his rented home, which is probably demolished. Local real estate listings still call these types of houses, often 400-800 square feet, "freedman cottages." Image via Wikipedia. [Image description: Small white house on a tiny shaded lot with black shutters and a front porch with small Greek columns. Entire building is the shape of a giant clapboard Lego.]
By the late 1700s officials had complained of urban enslaved people "going myrtle berry picking" in the Neck, or trading rum and goods with nearby rural enslaved people. Enslaved people who escaped from the City would often go there to pass themselves off as free, particularly if they were literate or skilled. Hired out and self-hired slaves were usually forced to reside independently in the City wherever they could find spare space, above garages or in unused corners of sheds. But in the Neck they could build illicit (and illegal) tenements and shacks.

Agostino Brunias, "Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape," c.
1764-1796. Image via Wikipedia. Though this depicts a Caribbean scene, the wealthiest class of free Charlestonians of color in Vesey's time were generally slave-holding Mulatto people like the women depicted. Like the men shown above, male slaves of prominent White families wore distinctive "liveries" or uniforms, the perceived attractiveness of which were often recalled fondly by Confederate sympathizers after the Civil War as one of many super-fun privileges of being a slave (yes, really).

Free Black and Brown (as "mulatto" or biracial people were then called) people lived in nearly segregated pockets of the Neck, some near Coming Street and others on the blocks north of Meeting & Boundary. They sought both to distance themselves socially and legally from slaves (and independent slave tenement neighborhoods), and were uneasy with the white working class, who often openly resented both slaves for undercutting their employment and wages, and free Black people since many White Charlestonians complained that "Negro" meant "Slave," and "free Negroes" were an offensive oxymoron. Since most manumissions resulted from children of interracial sex and rape, three fourths of all free colored people, and the great  majority of comparatively well-to-do free colored property owners, were Brown, the wealthiest of them slaveholders. Exclusively Brown societies were created to provide insurance, professional services, and support for widows similar to a 20th century union, while the excluded free Black people generally struggled to make ends meet, forming their own societies in later decades.

Nancy Weston, a mulatta Charlestonian, was photographed a few decades after Vesey's lifetime but her story is nonetheless representative of the lives of free Brown Charlestonians in Vesey's community. Photo via MulattoDiaries, where a commenter identifying as a descendent of Nancy's owners fills in the details. She was the child of a female slave and the Weston plantation owner, and had a child with the Grimke plantation owner. Grimke willed her to be enslaved in name only to his son Montague, the white half-brother to Nancy's own Brown sons. Because of complicated and often difficult manumission laws, many Black and Brown people like Nancy were held in nominal slavery by friends, family and benevolent owners. They had no legal rights and could be seized and sold elsewhere, for instance, to pay their owner's debts. She had been the mistress of a plantation, but Montague sold it and bought Nancy a house on Coming Street in Vesey's neighborhood, where she lived in poverty taking in washing. Montague then attempted to enslave Nancy's sons, who resisted and were beaten in the workhouse while Nancy, a slave, had no legal recourse. Legal claims to freedom could be disputed, with some claims (certified born to a White woman or born to two free Black people) stronger than others, creating a constant threat of instability for free Black people. At some point Vesey had children, for instance, and though fathered by a free man with various enslaved women, they had a weak claim to freedom and remained enslaved. When her son attempted to stay at her house to recuperate from an injury and Nancy refused to send him back to work, Montague sent Nancy to a workhouse for corrections, where she went on hunger strike until his friends persuaded him to have her released. Though laws of her era forbade educating nonwhite people (I'll get to that later) she taught her boys at night in secret, as did many Black and mulatto people. Nancy's granddaughter was Angelina Weld Grimke, the famous writer and abolitionist.

A "free badge," kept by free Black and Brown Charlestonians just like self-hire slave badges. Like South African Apartheid, Charleston was a "papers, please" police state for all Black people; punishments for being stopped without one's badge were severe. Photo via.
African religions were often incorporated into Christian establishments, except conjurers / physicians, who practised in secret, particularly in the Neck and rural areas, and were widely sought after by Black Charlestonians. Vesey's acquaintance (and later co-conspirator) "Gullah Jack," was an influential conjurer born in Angola who many believed had occult powers and immunity to white men's bullets. ("But," he would later say, "I am not immune to the treachery of my own race.") Vesey himself, however, was Presbyterian as late as 1816. Most religious Black people attended large white-run churches, which emphasized the heavenly rewards of obedience to their Black congregations. But by the late 1700s Christian racial tensions were growing.

In 1787 in Philadelphia Black members of the local Methodist church had grown so resentful of their unkind treatment and special restrictions that they left to form the first Free African Society and African Methodist Episcopal denomination. Soon after, Black members of a Charleston Methodist church chafed under White leaders who revoked their privileges to oversee their own church trials, hold their own quarterly conference, and manage their own collections. When White leaders disputed rights to the Black burial grounds and built a hearse house there, it was the last straw.

Morris Brown
Rev. Morris Brown. [Image shows a formal drawn or engraved portrait of a formally dressed balding Black man resembling Benjamin Franklin]. Image Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia via PBS
Rev. Morris Brown and 1400 followers, both enslaved and free, founded a new African Methodist Episcopal church in 1791 near Hampstead (near Reid and Hanover Streets in the Neck). Two other Charlestonian churches arose under the Free African Society and the three were named the "Bethel Circuit". By 1817 Vessey had become involved as one of several founders and leaders of the Hampstead AME church. In the Free African Society people had a chance to study religion as a salvation from slavery rather than a reward for it and to conduct their own affairs as an independent community.

As free Black people gained a foothold in these various areas of society, White resentment turned to panic. Though free Black people were legally "denizens," not "citizens" Charleston's free Black codes were not as strict as in other states, attracting free Black immigrants from across the South. An 1800 law required only that a slave be able to support him/herself to be eligible for freedom (though I'm unsure how this worked in practise). But in 1820 a bill was passed that prohibited manumission (freeing of slaves) except by legislative decree (i.e. owners couldn't free slaves without the assembly's approval); out-of-state free Black people were prohibited from immigrating on punishment of enslavement; and the crossing of state lines by free Black people was curtailed.

Fearful White people found an enemy in the Bethel Circuit. A law was passed forbidding any assembly or "mental instruction" of Black people, free or enslaved, without a White person present to supervise. In 1817, 469 Black people were arrested for "disorderly conduct" in one AME church, and in 1818 140 members of Vesey's church, including Rev. Brown and other ministers, were arrested for violating the supervision law. Authorities shut down his Hampstead church again in 1820. Vesey, long struggling with White brutality toward his community, was livid.

Though details are scant, over his years in Charlston Vesey had had several children with more than one wife, all of them enslaved. Following the harassment of his church, witnesses later alleged, Vesey said he wanted to "see them free." They alleged that starting December 1821 Vesey began planning the largest slave uprising in US history, which would take place Bastille Day (July 14) 1822.

[You'll want to click below to keep reading....]

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

James Van Der Zee photos and the portrait I drew from them

James van der Zee set up his famous photograhy studio in his sister's music conservatory in Harlem in 1911. Just as the Harlem Renaissance was growing into a major movement he was able to capture a slice of life of ordinary middle class families, local figures, celebrities and artists with a disarming warmth and insider's perspective (Van Der Zee himself was a musician and father as well, and long-time Harlem resident). Here is a portrait I drew based on one of his family photographs:
Ciana Pullen, Anonymous Man drawn from a photo by James Van Der Zee
Ciana Pullen, Anonymous Man drawn from a photo by James Van Der Zee, charcoal on paper. [Image description: Realistic black and white sketch of the head and shoulders of a young Black man wearing a formal early 20th century military coat, leather sash, and medal chains. He is centered on a white background and diffuse light enters from the left. The marks making up the dark coat dissolve toward the bottom right of the image.]

James Van Der Zee, Garveyite Family, Harlem, 1924.
James Van Der Zee, Garveyite Family, Harlem, 1924. This is the image I used to draw the man above. [Image description: 1920s black and white studio photo of a middle aged Black woman sitting in a formal dress and pearls, a young Black man in a military uniform standing on the left with his hand on her shoulder, and a young boy, maybe eight, in a sailor suit, standing to the right. A small dog, possibly a prop, stands at the boy's heels. The backdrop makes them appear to be in a grand house with huge stately windows, a carved archway, and 18th century murals or wallpaper depicting a forested landscape. A real vase sits on a dark shining wooden desk behind them. Each has a serious but pleasant facial expression.]

A "Garveyite" family would have been followers of Marcus Garvey, an enormously influential Black intellectual of the early 20th century who promoted the self-advancement and economic empowerment of Blacks worldwide as well as a return to ancestral lands and culture, such as Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism. In 1919, shortly before the above photo would have been taken, Garvey's newspaper Negro World was published from New York, mouthpiece of his organization UNIA, which at that point had around two million members. He was a contemporary, and frequent rival, of W. E. B. Du Bois.

Portrait of James Van Der Zee
Portrait of James Van Der Zee. I don't know who took this photograph. [Image description: close-cropped face of an older Black man with short grey hair, large glasses and a suit.]

Portrait of a Band Leader, by James Van Der Zee
Portrait of a Band Leader, by James Van Der Zee. [Image description: A young boyish-looking Black man in a dark suit, light shirt and tie, and pocket square, stands, feet apart, in front of a backdrop holding a conductor's baton horizontally across his thighs, one hand on each end. His face points slightly down, his gaze is up and out of frame to the right. He wears close-cropped waved hair.]

Portrait of a Couple, by James Van Der Zee
Portrait of a couple, by James Van Der Zee. [Image description: full-length black and white studio portrait of a youngish middle aged Black couple in formal winter clothes. The woman stands on the left in a dark cloche hat and dark knee-length coat with a huge fur collar and cuffs that matches her hat and heels. She holds a purse and gloves and holds one foot forward, lifted elegantly. The man stands with his shoulder behind her and to the right in the same position but with his hand on a walking cane. He wears a dark suit and shoes with grey spats, a white shirt and dark necktie, a long dark overcoat, and a light fedora with dark hat-band. They appear to be in front of a background showing a snow-covered tree-lined lane in a park.]

Portrait of a Family, by James Van Der Zee.
Portrait of a Family, by James Van Der Zee. [Image description: Black and white studio photo of a youngish Black woman (I'll call her the mother) and two children, probably two and four, sitting in a group so that their faces form a line from bottom left to top right. The smallest child throws his or her arms around the mother's neck. They all smile placidly. The mother wears a low bun to the side and a plain mid-toned long-sleeved dress; the children wear striped puffy dresses with big collars, and their hair is in tiny short lolly-pop curls.]

Portrait of a Woman by James Van Der Zee, 1929.
Portrait of a woman by James Van Der Zee, 1929. [Image description: Sepia toned studio photo of a youngish Black woman from the knees up in formal 1920s top and skirt with finger waved bob and bangs. She sits at a woman's carved wood writing desk either reading or writing on some papers or a periodical in front of her. A vase of roses sits on the desk beside her. Her free hand reaches up to loosely brush her neck.]

Portrait of a woman by James Van Der Zee.
Portrait of a woman by James Van Der Zee. [Image Description: Black and white full-lenth studio photo of a young Black woman in a formal ruffled flapper dress and finger waved bob, holding flowers and sitting in a formal chair in front of a backdrop.

Van Der Zee was successful throughout the 1910s-40s, but by the 1960s he had become extremely poor as personal cameras became popular and studio portraits were no longer in demand. In the 1970s and 80s, however, various museum and leaders in the arts staged shows of his photographs and his work gained renewed interest. He received a Living Legacy Award form President Jimmy Carter, and he photographed Cicely Tyson, Bill Cosbey, and others, including Jean-Michel Basquiat:

Jean-Michel Basquiat, by James Van Der Zee, 1982.
James Van Der Zee, Jean-Michel Basquiat. 1982. I love that this still looks like the early 20th century studio portraits, and I'm sure it made a clear departure from the slick bright photography popular in the 80s. I'd love to know what the two men thought of each other. [Image: Black and white photo of Basquiat, a young Black man with shortish Medusa-like dreadlocks, sits in a large carved 1850's chair, leaning forward with his face on one hand. A Siamese cat sits on his lap. He slumps and looks out of frame, with his head at the top right and his gaze pointed at the top left of the image. His other elbow sits on the armrest and his hand dangles and fingers brush his leg. He wears a grey checked paint-spattered suit and conveys an overall restless, ethereal and dishevelled appearance.]



Saturday, February 1, 2014

Septima P. Clark

Happy Black History Month! Here is a portrait I drew from my Interesting South Carolinians series of Septima Poinsette Clark:

Septima Clark by Ciana Pullen
Ciana Pullen, Portrait of Septima Poinsette Clark, 1898 - 1987. Charcoal on paper, drawn from several different photographs and based around 1965. [Image description: realistic black and white charcoal bust portrait of an older black woman holding a pencil in mid-thought and looking abstractly outside of the left picture frame. She wears silver-tipped black cat-eye glasses, a white shirt with popped lapels, and a dark jacket or cardigan with a large fold-over collar. Her natural salt-and-pepper hair is brushed back from her large forhead and hangs in wisps at the nape of her neck. She sits leaning into the image frame from the right edge, with her head in the middle-right of the upper half of the drawing, her hand holding the pencil loosely with a bent wrist in the lower left corner. Diffused natural light illuminates her from the left, as if through a window.]

“I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.”



Civil rights legend Septima Poinsette Clark (1898 – 1987) began as a teacher in a small African American school on Johns Island near Charleston, SC. Because she was black she was not allowed to teach in Charleston, but while teaching in Johns Island she developed ways of using everyday materials such as Sears catalogs to teach literacy.


Across from Clark's school was a white school, where only three students attended and the teacher made $85 per week. Meanwhile Clark was teaching principal for a school of 132 black students; she made $35 per week while the other two teachers made only $25. Galvanized by this discrimination she returned to Charleston to teach at the Avery Normal Institute, helping to win a legal victory for black people to have the right to become principals at Charleston's public schools in 1920. Clark continued to fight for equality for educators and was eventually fired because of her refusal to renounce membership with the NAACP, lost her pension and was black-balled from every school in the Charleston area. So threatened were other black educators with losing their jobs that they would not even be photographed with her.

After studying with W. E. B. du Bois Clark earned a bachelor's degree in 1945 and became involved with the Highlander Folk School in rural Monteagle, TN. There she put her innovative Johns Island teaching techniques to use conducting literacy workshops across the South. Because Jim Crow laws prevented illiterate citizens from voting, Clark's short 1- and 2-week courses were designed to be taught with minimal resources, often hidden in back rooms of shops because of the threat of racial violence, with the goal of passing voting literacy tests and setting foundations for communities to further their own learning. By 1969 Clark's program helped to register over 700,000 people to vote, including Rosa Parks just months before the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Clark became the first woman appointed a leadership position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but she would struggle with sexism from within the civil rights movement, speaking out against it and retiring from the organization in 1970. She then sued for back payment and pensions from her job with the Charleston Public School System and won, going on to serve two terms on the Charleston County School Board. She was awarded a Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

Avery Institute
The Avery Normal Institute where Clark once taught, 19th century and today, 125 Bull Street, Charleston, near MUSC. The institute itself was a landmark historic Black learning institute and later a center of activism. Today the Avery Institute is owned by the College of Charleston and functions as a museum, archive and research center for African American history and culture. photo via.

Site of Septima Clark's home
The site of Clark's home, now demolished, on Henrietta Street in Downtown Charleston, SC., next to Francis Marion Square. Coincidentally, I park my car here in the vendor's lot for the Charleston Farmer's Market, which is where I drew the portrait of Clark and sell prints of it, and never noticed the placard until I saw it online researching this post. via perservationsociety.org.


Septima Clark
Septima Clark, via Charron & Cline, Southern Cultures. [Image description: Black and white photo of an older-middle-aged Clark in three-quarter profile, her head bowed and looking out of frame.]


Septma Clark with Freedom School attendees
Septima Clark with students in a literacy / voting workshop, via The Self-Rescuing Princess Society. [Image description: black and white snapshot of a group of older Black men and women sitting at a table looking at booklets with Clark sitting in the center speaking. They're in a plain old-fashioned room.]


Ms. Towles, Rosa Parks, Corretta Scott King, Septima Clark, Annelle Ponder
Civil Rights figures (from left to right): Ms. Towles (I Googled but could find no information on this person), Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Annelle Ponder (a teacher at a Freedom School in Mississippi and local field secretary for the SCLC, via God's Long Summer by Charles Marsh). Photo from the Lowcountry Digital Library, via The Self-Rescuing Princess Society. [Image desciption: A black and white snapshot of the women described, all dressed in 1960s formal attire, standing in a line smiling.]


Septima Clark by Brian Lanker
Portrait of Septima Clark, taken by Brian Lanker. The story of the photographer and this photo can be found via 37 Paddington. [Image description: Black and white artistic photo of Septima Clark's head and shoulders in profile. Her figure is lit brightly against a black background, her chin rests on the knuckle of the forefinger of her relaxed hand. She wears her white hair in three thin cornrow-type braids over her head stretching in U-shapes from ear to crown to ear, making for a clean-lined profile of her head. She appears serious with heavily lidded eyes peering down out of her upwardly tilted face, gazing straight ahead.]
A 2007 historical marker on Johns Island (a rural coastal island just outside Charleston, SC) about Clark and the Progressive Club, a civil rights era community center, via Gullah/Geechee Nation. Today you'll also see the Septima Clark Parkway running across Downtown Charleston from the bridge from West Ashley to the Ravenel Bridge to Mt. Pleasant. It's usually called "The Crosstown."



Friday, January 3, 2014

Quentin Blake, illustration for The Witches

Quentin Blake, illustration for The Witches
Quentin Blake, illustration for Rhoald Dahl's The Witches. In the film the central figure-- the witch leader-- was played by Angelica Houston. [Image description: Black line cartoon, probably with fountain pen, filled in with watercolors, of a woman standing akimbo with her arms thown up spread-eagled and five skulking bald witches in daydresses with matching handbags and gloves crouched around her.]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Flooded McDonald's by SUPERFLEX


Film still from Flooded McDonald's, by SUPERFLEX. [Image description: color photo taken near eye level of water, maybe waist-deep, of a flooded McDonald's, probably behind the counter, with fast food cups and debris floating everywhere and a tipped-over life-size plastic Ronald in the corner.]



Video is a clip from Flooded McDonald's by Danish art group SUPERFLEX. It shows various vignettes from the interior of an uninhabited McDonald's restaurant as it fills with rushing water.

SUPERFLEX also has some neat projects where they re-created the fancy restrooms of executives in public places, available on their website.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Upright Citizens: the importance of necks, shoulders & spines in portraiture (and in general)


Look at these weird babies!

Bramantino, Madonna and Child
Bramantino, Madonna and Child, c. 1508 or before. [Image description: Realistic but stylized high Renaissance Italian painting of Madonna holding an apple out of Christ's reach, who is standing and being supported with her other hand. Her torso only is visible, cut off by a window-like frame, and behind her a mostly tan and greige background recedes with painstakingly perfect perspective lines to a village or castle skyline behind her painted in muted atmospheric tones. Madonna wears a dark green velvet and satin cloak and red tunic. Christ is naked but for Mary's and placed just so. Next to them stands a tall spindly red-orange potted flower (a chrysanthemum, maybe?). The streamlined, simplified forms and soft shadows of Mary's eye sockets and nose, and the spherical shading of her jaw, create an Art Deco-like effect, but Christ's face isn't painted that way.]
This Baby Jesus's face is pretty realistic for a baby, but his head is simply out of proportion to his shoulders (and body). Babies and toddlers, as we all know, have big old bobble-heads that dwarf their shoulders and bodies.


Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child
Duccio di Buoninsegna (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child [Image description: late medieval / early renaissance icon-style painting of Mary holding Christ, who reaches up to touch her veil. She is centered on a plain gold background and wears a black veil with 2-D looking gold line art wrinkles, but her skin and Christ's skin are softly contoured with semi-realistic taupe shadows. ]
This Baby Jesus reminds me of those inaccurate but oddly literal medieval illustrations of exotic animals which Europeans had never actually seen. Only this painter had apparently never seen a baby, but only heard them described as, "like an adult but bald, very small, and fat," then painted a literal interpretation. Thus the head has inappropriately adult proportions to the neck and shoulders. Yes yes, I know painters in those days could have been representing Christ as very mature (and thus wise-beyond-his-years) and that they supposedly thought of children as tiny adults, but my focus in this post is on physically realistic portrayals. Renaissance paintings, after all, are not my specialty.* So pay attention to why, specifically, these children look so wrong.

*nota bene: I have no specialty.


Ambrogio Bergognone, Madonna and Child (not sure if this is actually Bergognone; allpaintings.com is the only site that attributes it this way). [Image Description: close-up of Madonna holding Jesus in front of a detailed da Vinci-like landscape. Brown earth, blue sky, peaches & cream skin and flushed pink cheeks.]

The Bergognone Baby Jesus's face is pretty proportional for a baby, but the neck is way too wide and the ears are tiny. The shoulder, though, is in proportion.

Giotto, Madonna and Child
Giotto, Madonna and Child, c. 1320-1330. [Image description: Mary holding Baby Jesus, both against a flat gold background in a Gothic arch surrounded by black. Both figures have stylized halos made of linear designs on the gold. The skin and clothes are stylized but shaded and contoured somewhat 3-dimensionally and realistically. Mary holds a plant (olive leaf?) that Jesus reaches for.]

Giotto's Baby Jesus also has a disproportionately small head in relation to the shoulders, and again, the tiny ears. The upper arms are not in proportion, either.

As realistic as (some of) these babies' faces were, the inaccurate neck and shoulders ruined the illusion. Now, here are some more realistic proportions where the head attaches to the neck and shoulders:

Luini, Madonna and Child
Bernardino Luini, Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara. c. 1522-1525. [Image description: three women stand in the background, their bowed heads forming a horizontal line dividing the top quadrant from the bottom three. Madonna, in the middle, holds Christ with one hand and does a blessing with the other. Christ stands on a stool and reaches toward an open book, presumably a holy text, sitting on a table with a red tablecloth with black stripes. The woman on the right holds a feather quill, on the left a quill and book. The style is late Renaissance and very realistic, fully contoured and chromatic with dramatic lighting (chiaroscuro) against a dark black background and deep shadows.]



Raphael, the Tempi Madonna, could not find date (early 1500s). [Image description; soft but realistic high renaissance style painting of Madonna standing and holding Baby Jesus with his back to the viewer, pressing her face to his cheek so his face is turned and visible. The sky is seafoam green, and a landscape horizon is barely showing around Mary's figure at the bottom third.]
The way this Baby Jesus's head connects with his neck and shoulders is not only proportional, it tells a story about his gentle nature through the gesture of softly yielding to his mother's snuggle.


Now that you're thinking of the human head, neck and shoulders, I'll just go ahead and say they are as important in a realistic portrait as the face. Unlike babies, adults and even older kids have their experiences and personalities written in many ways on their bodies, and the neck and shoulders in a typical bust portrait are the key to expressing this. The physical condition of the body-- ripped muscles, scrawniness, stockiness, lankiness-- is hinted at through the neck and shoulders. More tellingly, the person's habitual gestures and characteristic way of holding him/herself upright is expressed this way.

If you're doubting the importance of body shape and gesture in being able to immediately identify a person, you probably aren't near-sighted. I, on the other hand, without my glasses can see only lumpy blurs of people at five feet away and farther, but I can still identify someone all the way across a large gymnasium by the way they move. Buster from Arrested Development had to have been lying about not recognizing Lucille 2 without his glasses; even as a "brown shape with points," only one person moves like Liza Minnelli, and that's Liza Minnelli.

And I'm not saying you have to finish the neck and shoulders to the same degree that the face is finished. Maybe you only allude to it with a sketchy line, maybe you can only see the lumps of shoulders under a puffy coat and scarf, but what you're alluding to has to be correct. And everyone is different.

Consider, for instance, Nina Simone. Notice how her head leans forward with an intense yearning concentration on an imaginary horizon, every so often thrown back and to the side impatiently. Her chin recedes into her neck, creating the general appearance of a serious frown and accentuating the forward thrust of her face. The sides of her long neck descend in sinewy muscles into strong rounded shoulders, all in tune with her persona as a performer.


[Video Description: Black & white 1969 video of Nina Simone performing live, "To Love Somebody," at a piano. She wears a tall head wrap, dangling earrings and a halter top. She plays a lingering quietly soulful version of the song, then when she's done she leaps up from the piano bench, runs to the front of the stage, and raises her arms to the audience.]

Now, here are Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton performing together. Dolly throws her body up and back from the hips, opening her sternum to the audience, keeping an erect neck and spine while bending and swaying at the knees. It gives her a brittle but ebullient appearance. Her neck and shoulders pull back. I guess the posture, aside from expressing her particular personality, could come from decades of filling large venues with her presence before enormous screens were common, from decades of proper posture to counter her considerable tatas, from the influence of singing in Church, or from her sheer steely perkiness. Miley, on the other hand, hunches forward from her lower shoulders through her neck, holds her face downward, and staggers forward on bent knees, creating the impression of being both closed within her own intensely felt emotions and putting herself forward toward her audience. She sways and holds her joints bent so she always has the appearance of motion, or even a controlled artistic convulsion. She also holds her chin and jaw thrust forward and out, creating a confident and jaunty posture. Miley Cyrus has probably never performed in large venues without either a megascreen behind her or her face being captured in close-up on film, so she can use an inward, reclusive motion to her advantage to express intensity. And pop singers her age have been informed by decades of the aggressive forward-hunch stance of shouting punks, metalheads and hip-hop performers. She has characteristically thin but square shoulders and a long neck that give her hunching posture a boyish athletic appearance.


[Video description: long-hair family-friendly Miley performs "Jolene" live on an outdoor stage with a fringed, bedazzled Dolly Parton. Both hold personal microphones and sing to each other, taking turns so they play each other's rival, Jolene.]

Now take Don Knotts as Barney Fife. He looks like a turtle, and that's because he rounds forward in his lower-mid back (where a bra would fasten), and his shoulders are both narrow and sloping rather than protruding, all creating the illusion of a rounded domed "shell." His thin neck attaches to the front of this structure rather than sitting tall atop his spine, and his receding chin and high, sloping forhead create a smooth curve up from and back from his neck, where a turtle's head would be lifted forward. The posture allows him to appear bedraggled even while he is generally high-energy and eager. Without the characteristic way his large ears lead to his tapered neck and thin, hunched shoulders, he wouldn't be Don Knotts.


[Video Description: Barney attempts to recite the Preamble to the Constitution as Andy has to feed him the lines word-by-word.]

Now contrast him with Mick Jagger. The man operates like an open Jack-in-the-box, as if his torso is a spring attached to his hips, full of coiled tension and always ready to snap back the other direction. Though like Barney his shoulders are thin-ish and narrow, he emphasizes his spring-loaded posture with the actual tension of skin-tight clothes, and his small shoulders generally appear square because of this same posture. He also differs from Don Knotts in that his head is extremely large for his shoulders and his big hair exaggerates it. To support his big old noggin, he has a thicker more muscular neck. His jaw he holds isolated forward and tilted up, as if the bottom of his mouth is filled with liquid he doesn't want to spill. The habitual upward tilt of his chin gives him an insouciant appearance and emphasizes the width and tension of his neck, reminding one of the tense throat of his screaming onstage persona.

Mick Jagger 1972, photo by Bob Gruen
Mick Jagger, 1972, photo by Bob Gruen, via MorrisonHotel, via AnthonyLuke. [Image description: Black & white action shot of Jagger performing live against a black background. His upper torso is shown in profile, leaning forward, arms reaching out to grasp the microphone, his head thrown back and turned toward the camera with his mouth open in mid-song and his eyes cast downward.]

Mick Jagger. Can't find the photographer, via artsmeme.com [Image description: black & white shot of Mick Jagger sitting in a casual suit shown from crotch upward, with one knee up and to the side, one wrist leaning on the knee, the other hand near his hip with his elbow out. A backward C-shaped curve is formed by the fly of his pants, the buttons of his shirt, his open jacket and lapels, his spine and neck, and extending through his head held at an angle. His mouth is open and brow kind of scrunched like he's thinking hard and in mid-speech.]

Obvious genius Scott Fertig noticed the similarities between the facial features of Don Knotts and Mick Jagger-- fish lips, pronounced folds at the barrel of the mouth, flat brows over lidded eyes-- and put Don Knotts' face on Mick Jagger's body. Now, you can really see how the posture and structure of the neck and shoulders make an enormous difference, making similar facial features appear staggeringly different.
"Mick Knotts," via ScottFertig. [Image: Black & white photo of Mick Jagger posing with undershirt and low-slung jeans against a brick wall, one hand resting on the opposite shoulder with his arm across his chest. But his face has been replaced with Don Knotts's smirking face under Mick's feathered rock-star hairdo.]

Lest you believe these structures are only remarkable in easily caricatured weirdos like Don Knotts and Mick Jagger, I'll compare two conventionally beautiful Hollywood actresses who both play "every-woman" types in teen movie franchises: Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence.

JLaw's neck is nearly the same width as her face, and though long, is unusually thick for a Hollywood woman. It also sits squarely atop her shoulders and stretches straight up and down, the posture of which a yoga-mom would approve. Her head itself is centered atop her neck and her face is usually lifted and facing straight forward, giving her the appearance of a noble cadet. Her thick upright neck and posture are likely what makes her appearance credible as an athletic yet nobly idealistic participant in the Hunger Games. It also likely plays a part in her forthright public persona (people like to say, "she's so real!") The noble, open posture, for instance, makes it seem righteous when she flips the bird at a formal event, rather than sleazy.

Jennifer Lawrence gives middle finger at Academy Awards
Jennifer Lawrence flips someone off at the Academy Awards.

Film still of Katniss from The Hunger Games
Film still from The Hunger Games.

Jennifer Lawrence at ComiCon
Typical JLaw posture.
Now, KStew (I hate those names but I kinda get it now that I'm avoiding having to write them out in a blog). Her neck is shorter but thinner. Her shoulders are also square but slightly narrower, hinting at the overall sporty-but-delicate look of her frame. Most importantly, though, is the way she holds her head forward and tilted. When caught candidly, her shoulders are typically at an opposing angle to her head, so that if you drew two lines, one between her eyes and one between her shoulders and then extended both lines, they would eventually intersect beside her on one side. She also holds her head forward but tipped back at an angle, as if weighted back and to the side by her curtain of hair. The hair itself emphasizes the habitual gesture since she keeps it long and famously flips it all over to one side or the other and in front of her shoulder. Her jaw is sharply delineated from her neck and ends in a pointed chin that appears to jut forward with contrariness because of the forward thrust of her neck. The limp outstretched neck, jutting chin and jaw, and opposing angles give her a lazily rebellious look that, combined with her naturally down-turned mouth, I find appealing but apparently rubs a lot of people the wrong way. KStew, for instance, would come across as sleazy or disrespectful if she flipped the bird (which, to be clear, would be totally awesome).

Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart leans forward in conversation
Kristen Stewart [Image Description: Stewart leans forward with her elbows on a table (not shown below the bottom of the photo), her mouth open mid-speech]

Here she is posing on the red carpet in a stock KStew posture. Notice how her jaw is jutting to the side but her head is upright, as if she is being pulled offstage in one of those old Vaudeville shows with a shepherd's crook around her neck. It is markedly different from any stock JLaw red carpet poses. You can also see that her ears are unusually high up on her head.

Kristen Stewart on the red carpet
Kristen Stewart at some red carpet thing

I find that even when you cannot really see the clear shape of the ears, neck and shoulders, the visual hints are still there:

-What kind of shadows do the chin and jaw cast on the neck? The deep shadow of a jutting shelf-like chin and jaw? or the soft shading and under-lighting of a chin that melts into the throat?

-What kind of shadow is formed at the base of the neck, where it attaches to the collarbone?

-How does the hair fall around the neck and shoulders? If it falls straight down from the head, the place where it lands on the neck and shoulders can help indicate that the head is in front of or straight above the collarbone.

-Do the ears, if covered, affect the structure of the hair in a way that hints at their position? Can you see the earlobes or earrings? How does the jaw attach to the ear? Is there a shadow?

-Where do the shoulders intersect with the neck and jaw (and how far down from the earlobes)? If they're slouching they should intersect close to the ears and jaw and the neck should apear in front of the shoulders. If they are back and down, they'll intersect with the base of the neck.

-Where is the collarbone? If you imagine the base of the neck is a flat circular plane from the knob at the spine between neck and shoulders to the collarbone (the clean disc left by a guillotine, maybe?), the angle at which the collarbone sits may make more sense. When slouching, the spine-knob is thrust upward and the sternum down, pitching the plane forward and the circle upright. Thus the collarbone will be low and form a down-arrow shape. When sitting upright and level with the viewer, however, the plane is level and the collar bone is lined up right in front of the neck-knob and only slightly below the intersection of neck and shoulders.

-Do the shadows at the sides of the neck describe its width and breadth? Often hair will dangle around the neck, obscuring the sides. But the shadows it casts can be deep on a thin neck or shallow on a broad neck. Stiff collars can obscure the neck as well, but the way they fit around the neck, snugly or loosely, can be described by the shadows they cast. The degree of forward pitch of the collar can also be very descriptive of posture.

Finally, if you pay attention to the neck and shoulders before you start, you can manipulate the pose and angle so that any really personally identifying characteristics of their posture or build can be exaggerated. Take, for instance, the flower-stalk-like neck in the Bust of Nefertiti. Why draw her from this angle, with her hair hanging down in a wig (just imagine it)...

Bust of Nefertiti - front view
Bust of Nefertiti [Image description: a color photograph of the famous ancient Egyptian painted sculpture of Queen Nefertiti viewed from the front, with what appears to be a thin but average length neck and upside-down-trapezoidal hat]

...when you could choose this other angle, with her neck exposed and a big hat creating a visual X marking the spot of her regal eyes?

Bust of Nefertiti - right side view
Profile view of the Bust of Nefertiti. [Image description: photograph of the same sculpture, taken from the side in profile. Reveals an extremely long neck pitched forward to an upraised jaw and chin. Viewed from the side, the hat extends up and back at an opposing angle to the neck, creating an imaginary intersection right at her eyes and a sense of elegant balance. The trapezoidal tulip shape of the hat contrasting with the long thin neck also creates the illusion of a flower on a stalk.]
And, for a different take, here's 1980s Arnold Swartzenegger. He had a famously thick neck and body-builder muscles with the protruding barrel of his mouth resolutely marking the spot where the wad of muscles stopped being neck and started being face. So why pose him like this...


Arnold Swartzenegger, c. 80's [Image Description: color photo of Arnold's face, shoulders and upper torso at a three-quarter angle facing the viewer. His shoulders are rounded forward and his face lifted and at a bowed angle, obscuring much of his neck.]

...when you could choose this angle and pose?

Film still from or promotional image for The Terminator. [Image Description: color photo of Arnold's face, shoulders and chest in character as the Terminator. He wears sunglasses an holds a gun straight up in front and to the side, echoing the width and position of his neck. He wears a wide-lapel leather coat with a popped collar that sits flush against the back of his neck and skull, creating a visual X at the lumpy barrel of his mouth. The sides of the coat's neck opening extend down over his chest, continuing and emphasizing the line of his neck. Lazers in the background radiate outward from a point visually marking his collar bone.]







Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Round of Poetry-Slam Snaps for the CIA!

Enjoy this article in The Independent (UK) about recent evidence of the CIA's heavy involvement in promoting American Abstract Expressionist art in the 1940s and 50s. What surprised me even more than the cultural promotion itself was that at one time the CIA was so full of art enthusiasts.

The writer, Frances Stonor Saunders, describes the newly-formed post-WWII CIA as "staffed mainly by Yale and Harvard graduates, many of whom collected art and wrote novels in their spare time, was a haven of liberalism when compared with a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J Edgar Hoover's FBI. If any official institution was in a position to celebrate the collection of Leninists, Trotskyites and heavy drinkers that made up the New York School, it was the CIA."

Saunders describes the main goal of the program as promoting the US as a haven of liberty and free expression, and New York as a major cultural center, in direct opposition to the heavy-handed, conformist USSR. Despite the legacy of truly radical Russian and early Soviet art movements, leaders in the USSR had quickly created an atmosphere where only the stereotypical "propaganda poster" artwork style we think of today was accepted and where literature was generally aspirational, utopian political writing in the Socialist Realism genre (though Saunders inexplicably passes up the opportunity to use the phrase, "boy meets tractor"). The CIA worked closely with mega-wealthy patrons in the US and abroad, such as Nelson Rockefeller, who readily lent them "Mummy's museum" i.e. the MoMA. People who worked for the CIA also held key positions on museum boards, as cultural promoters, such as Fodor's travel guide writers, and were instrumental in promoting travelling US symphonies, art shows and the like.

USSR propaganda poster of Stalin holding a happy kid
A Soviet poster in an acceptable style. [Image: A realistic but idealized poster of Stalin in official uniform holding up a happy blond toddler in front of a sunny blue sky with hints of those puffy Important-Moments-in-History-clouds. The baby wears a white romper, socks and Mary-Jane shoes and holds some white flowers in one hand and a tiny hammer & sickle flag in the other. Stalin looks stern yet avuncular and the whole thing resembles Mufasa presenting Simba in The Lion King. The paint (or lithograph?) style itself is crisp and thinly applied, vaguely reminiscent of prosaic 1950s US advertising illustration. It is slightly painterly, with just enough brush-stroke and strategic unfinished-ness to reference the tradition of European Academic painting.]
Willem de Kooning on the cover of Newsweek 1965
Willem de Kooning on the cover of Newsweek in 1965 photographed painting a semi-abstract nude woman. Now I'm wondering if this cover is CIA promotional handiwork. According to the article, the artists themselves had no idea of the involvement. [Image: color photo of an oldish white man in a paint-covered smock mixes paint with a giant palate knife on a giant palate in front of a giant (seven foot?) painting. The painting itself looks messy and violent because of the slashing red brush strokes as well as cartoonish because of the "childlike" crude outlined black eyes and red mouth and the exaggerated boomerang-shaped hips and breasts-- the only discernible features of the otherwise completely abstract collection of oversized pastel brush strokes. The Newsweek logo is printed across the top, with the headline, "Art in New York" superimposed on the painting with the small subheading, "Painter Willem de Kooning," all in black.]

Saunders doesn't mention that the CIA's promotion of AbEx has an obvious precedent in the US government's worldwide promotion of US movies, particularly in the 1910s and 20s when the silent medium was easily shared in any language and Hollywood gave the US a jump-start on worldwide cultural hegemony. I suppose it would also be comparable to the many governments which pour money into their Olympic teams, touring ballet companies and cultural performance troupes as a method of promoting nations. If "ping pong diplomacy" can prove culturally significant, it's hardly surprising that a government would promote its art world-wide as well.

It also makes a certain amount of sense that AbEx would be promoted. I've written before about the link between money, power and the actual form of AbEx art (the relevant part begins about halfway through just after the image and the ***). The art itself is monumental, housed in imposing museums that doubled as displays of wealth and power, creating the same sense of security-meets-fear as when one walks into the lobby of a fancy bank. And the paintings were purported to be universal, to cut through language and historical relativism to affect the viewer on an exciting "primitive" level. If you forget about the eye-rolling with which AbEx tends to be met even today outside of small art-loving circles, AbEx would be a wonderful tool of propaganda even as it was often seen as an act of rebellion. Going back to my previous linked post, the actual involvement of the CIA with Modernism adds another layer to the reactive socio-political motivations I ascribed to the beginnings of Post-Modernism.

What is puzzling, though, is that the job would fall to the CIA and not, say, some completely mundane and transparent Bureau of Culture and Diplomacy or the like. This was all well before the Robert Mapplethorpe kerfuffle when the so-called Moral Majority permanently hobbled the idea of the NEA and more generally the idea of the government subsidizing the arts at all. So why hide that certain people who work for the government also work in the arts? Why would one need to be a CIA operative in order to acknowledge that promoting Pollock might benefit the nation?  Have we really always been that backward? Saunders hints at the extreme unpopularity of AbEx among ordinary tax-payers presenting an obstacle, but shit, that never stopped the US government before.

Ultimately I had several reactions to this bit of news. First, it is so ridiculous. But reading this on the heels of the NSA spying and Edward Snowden "treason" talk (give me a fucking break, he's a whistle-blower not a traitor), it seemed almost quaint. Second, I want to know all the details: who was responsible for what, who knew and who didn't, which shows were endorsed and why, so many questions! Third, I wish Kurt Vonnegut had been able to include this stuff in Bluebeard. Because you know he would have. And fourth... well, the NSA thing again. We're supposed to trust them as Professionals Who Know What's Best and Are Protecting Us, but the more we (are allowed to) learn about secret operations by the various US bureaus, the more farcical their efforts appear. Bay of Pigs? Exploding cigars? Stong-armed art critics who couldn't even win over Congress? Hmmmm....

PS: Hey NSA, since you're reading this, between you and me if you decide to fire up that cultural promotion thing again I volunteer to tour the world on your dime painting portraits. Just consider it.