Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Inktober Day 4: Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller

When Meta Veaux Warrick Fuller showed up to train in Paris in 1899 at age 22 she earned herself the nickname, "the Delicate Sculptor of Horrors." It could have been that she presented such works to her mentor, Rodin, as Man Eating His Heart, or it could have been her taste for horror stories from her childhood. But Paris loved her and her sculpture became incredibly popular. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Mary Cassatt organized a one-woman show for her work while several pieces were shown at the prestigious Salons. She thrived under the guidance of Rodin and his expressive conceptual style (you may have seen Rodin's most famous piece, The Thinker, a man hunched like he's sitting on the toilet, with his chin resting on his fist).


The Wretched, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1902. (image via). You can really see the influence of Fuller's teacher Rodin. Rodin was known for combining a slight amount of looseness or sketchiness (i.e. the lumpy surface texture) with expressive poses to create incredibly emotional, evocative sculptures.

Another crucial Paris friend who shaped her future was W.E.B. Du Bois. They met through a family friend (the famous Black painter Henry Ossawa Tanner) who let Fuller stay at his house when she was refused lodging at a women's club because she was Black. Through them she amassed a social circle of Black intellectuals, something she had missed since she left her home in Philadelphia, where there was a thriving Black middle class community. She, Tanner and Du Bois discussed the importance of creating an art that centered Black experiences and presented Black identity with pride. 

She was hesitant at first, concerned that it would limit her scope as an artist. She was already battling the constrictive "woman artist" label and didn't want to be constricted even further. But Fuller began to incorporate painful themes of Black experience into her repertoire of "delicate horrors" and was relieved to find that the Parisian public didn't find her gender to be an impediment to appreciating these difficult pieces. Parisians did express shock that a woman could have created such "masculine works of primitive power," or depict such "horror, pain and sorrow," but the pieces were appreciated and her reputation flourished.

 Returning to Philadelphia in 1903 was tough. The art world rejected Fuller because she was Black and her sculpture didn't get much appreciation. But she kept working and secured a large Federal Government commission (the first Black woman ever to receive one) for the Jamestown colony Tricentennial, to create plaster figures and dioramas depicting the Black lives in Jamestown from arrival of slaves through modern life, showing Black businessmen, newly freed slaves building a house, and a college commencement among other scenes. Other work of hers was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and in the segregated "Negro area" of several World Fairs. 

Her work at this time that centered Black experiences with empathy and value, was absolutely revolutionary. She didn't focus on glorifying the heroes of Black history, as much as to convey experience as something worth portraying, boldly in bronze. She worked directly from a point of view which she never tempered. That is, her sculptures didn't say "please allow me to change your point of view, here's why you should." Instead her sculpture said, "this is what I've seen, this is how I feel-- here, now you feel it too." The shock and sorrow of violent acts were presented in the tradition of Parisian sculpture, as part of the long tradition of expressing shock and sorrow of any other group, right back to antiquity. The everyday lives of Black people she treated as traditional genre painting, neither idealizing nor pandering, but simply showing it because it was absorbing and worthwhile. This just wasn't done at the time; the pressure-cooker of raging racism on one side and respectability politics on the other had largely prevented such a reasonable endeavor.


Two sculptures by Meta Vaux Warrick Harris. (image via). I couldn't find much information about these but they are lovely. I would guess they're from the early 1900s.


Self Portrait by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, undated. (image via).

In 1909 Fuller's husband moved the family from Boston out to Framingham, MA, a small town outside the city. He planned for Fuller to give up sculpture to be a full time mother and society hostess (the newlyweds would go on to have three children together). But Fuller saw sculpture as her divine calling. She continued sculpting at the back of the house, which her husband hated. Dr. Solomon Fuller, a psychiatrist, really should've known better because when he proposed in 1907, after knowing Fuller only a month, she accepted but insisted up front on a three-year engagement so that she could develop her art career before settling down. What did he think was going to happen?

To make matters worse the next year nearly all of her work was destroyed in a warehouse fire. She was devastated for years by the loss of her life's work compounded with her husband's lack of support. "You never should have left Paris," wrote an old friend dolefully. 

Emancipation by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, views from three different angles, 1913. (images via here, Pinterest and here). The monument stands in Boston and was commissioned to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (i.e. the legal end of slavery). Most representations of Emancipation, especially at the time, involved broken shackles, humble kneeling men who lift their heads dramatically toward heaven. There's also often a priest-like white man standing over. Fuller's is quite different, featuring a man and woman standing proudly around a tree with a third woman weeping on the other side of the tree. Fuller wrote, "I represented the race by a male and a female figure standing under a tree the branches of which are the fingers of Fate grasping at them to draw them back into the fateful clutches of hatred. [There is also] Humanity weeping over her suddenly freed children who, beneath the gnarled fingers of Fate, step forth into the world unafraid."
Bust of a Young Boy, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1913. (image via) As a young woman Beaux had studied portrait art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before studying in Paris. She continued occasionally with portraiture alongside her allegorical art throughout her career.

Sorrow or Mother and Child by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1914. (image via).

She found Framingham to be somewhat hospitable and supportive of her art (many of her public commissions are still displayed around the town), but also quietly hostile. Her white neighbors started a petition to try to force the Fuller family to move. Despite Fuller's increasing dedication to religious themes and involvement in church productions, her family eventually left their church due to racial discrimination. While in Framingham Fuller wrote plays and designed sets and costumes for Black theater groups back in Boston. She wrote poetry and painted. She became highly involved in activism for women's suffrage as well (but stopped once she realized the movement was exclusionary toward Black women). But she was isolated from her old contacts in the Black intellectual circles of Philadelphia and Paris. Preeminent members of Black society visited their home, but she was feeling cut off. Between this and her time spent in domestic work, her sculpture production slowed. Still, most of what remains today after the 1910 warehouse fire is from this period. By then, with children, Fuller was financially dependent on her husband and stuck in a depressing situation. World Was I began and her mood sank further.

Danse Macabre by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1914. (image via). "Danse Macabre" means "the dance of death," and it has been a theme in European art since the Middle Ages. The "dance" is usually shown uniting everyone, king or peasant. This was sculpted during World War I, a war that changed the generations's understanding of war and carnage. People enlisted expecting dignified battle and instead found thousands upon thousands of boys used as cannon fodder, living and dying in muddy trenches. The Danse Macabre has always struck me as the kind of poisonous sarcasm that is sometimes the only thing left to express, like when someone is so horrified they laugh. The cloak is beautifully sculpted, both enhancing the movement of the dance and resembling an engulfing ball of flame.



A sculpture (now lost) called Immigrant in America, created for an exhibition about immigration. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1915. (image via) These sorts of commissions for world fairs and government-sponsored exhibitions were Fuller's bread and butter.


Peace Halting The Ruthlessness of War, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1917. (image via). This was created at the close of World War I. This use of allegory (representing Peace and War as individual people) was much more traditional than in her more famous Ethiopia four years later. The efforts of Peace to stop Ruthlessness look pretty futile in this sculpture, and that's how it must have felt at the time; that's how it still usually feels. I love how War on its horse looks like it's rising from hell or out of the sea. The composition is really beautiful; there's a lot going on but it isn't crowded, just a nice sense of movement and form. 


A sculpture bust by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (image via). I couldn't find information on this sculpture, but it might be a self portrait because that looks like her nose.


Mary Turner, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. Painted plaster sculpture, 1919. (image via) MaryTurner had been murdered in Georgia by a seething mob the year before this sculpture was created. It was one of the most gruesome lynchings ever, and frankly one of the most elaborately violent murders I've ever heard of, anywhere. The mob had been searching for a Black laborer who had shot a white plantation owner who had beaten and exploited him. The man fled and vengeful white mob began murdering any black bystander they suspected might have anything to do with helping him, which was at least 13 people. Mary Turner's husband was one such victim. Turner was eight months pregnant at the time. She cried out publicly at the injustice and shamed the murderers, threatening to have them arrested. The mob, then consisting of around 700 white people, tortured her then murdered her unborn baby and then her, then mutilated the corpses. The mob continued their "manhunt" and committing more murders, causing over 500 people to flee the area in fear of their lives. No justice was ever done for any of the victims. White newspapers characterized Turner's protestations about her husband's murder as "attitude." The NAACP brought the lynchings to the attention of Congress to introduce anti-lynching legislation. It passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly, but then Southern senators united to filibuster the legislation repeatedly. It never passed. It's especially lucky that Fuller memorialized Turner in bronze because as the decades passed the episode was erased: local museums and historical organizations denied knowing anything about it and schools didn't teach it. There was a grassroots effort in the 1990s-2000s to re-research the event, publicly memorialize it and educate the public. Fuller herself likely would have been made aware through the NAACP newspaper's investigative reporting. [As an aside, I can't imagine a more terrifying assignment than being that investigator sent by the NAACP].

Black soldiers and workers returning from World War I had finished the bloody battle that was ostensibly for freedom and democracy, only to return to an America that was even worse in terms of racial oppression and violence. Conservative whites who had been steeped in the violence and trauma of trench warfare, aggrieved by social upheavals like women's suffrage and youth culture, their daily lives and hopes held in interminable suspension by WWI and the flu pandemic, released their pent-up rage and fear on Black people. In the 1920s white emotions exploded with hair-trigger massacres, lynch mobs, deadly race riots (not only in the South) and rampant domestic terrorism. The KKK, which was largely fading, came back with a vengeance, nationwide, more powerful than it had ever been. Social reform and community building became nearly impossible in an atmosphere where failure to maintain the illusion of docile submission, even so much as eye contact, could result in multiple murder.  

Black people migrated north to big cities in droves, seeking employment and and a better social situation. That made Harlem the unofficial capitol of Black American culture. Just as Fuller moved to Framingham the Harlem Renaissance was aleady beginning in New York. Black identity could suddenly be big and bold, shouted from the rooftops in poetry, music, activism and fashion. Even something as simple as living a bourgeois life was a deeply transgressive part of the movement. The phenomenon spread across the country to other cities, to Black colleges, Black churches, small Black towns founded by freed slaves-- anywhere that Black people had made safe-ish communities. That's why some historians prefer "The Negro Movement," but I, like most people, prefer the poetic "Harlem Renaissance."

Artists such as Augusta Savage turned to Fuller's work as inspiration. Other artists took inspiration from folk art and African art, rejecting the idea of upholding Eurocentric traditions. Aaron Douglas (perhaps my favorite), for instance, married a cubist-folk style with African motifs in his murals, looking to Latino artists like Diego Rivera for inspiration; while Jacob Lawrence's paintings blended German expressionism with bright African colors and modern American subject-matter. The art world changed immensely between 1910 and 1940 , and Harlem changed right along with it, with influences changing from fauvism, cubism and expressionism at the beginning of the movement, to surrealism, socialist realism, and abstract expressionism toward the end. But artists of the Negro Movement always offered an interpretation via Black identity, from African-inspired or jazz-inspired style to cultural commentary. 

An influential writer and chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance cemented the idea that Fuller ushered in the movement with her Ethiopia Awakening in 1921. But that isn't quite true; the timeline is a bit off. And it was her entire body of work dating back to 1900 which had such influence. This same writer also expressed disappointment in Fuller as a black artist, however, because although she dedicated herself to showing Black experiences, she was also dedicated to the traditional European style of Rodin. The reduced Fuller's legacy in art history to something of a "one-hit wonder" phenomenon of Ethiopia

Fuller was older than many famous Harlem Renaissance artists, some of whom weren't even born until 1915, and her work is more old-fashioned. If her sculptures had a soundtrack it would be French Impressionist piano; the iconic art of the movement would sound like jazz. Among the stodgier moments of the movement were somber memorials to the dignified heroes of Black history, such as relief sculptures and memorial plaques which documented individuals and events in a straightforward style. This history certainly needed memorializing, but as artwork I prefer Fuller's experiential, more conceptual take. Despite her Edwardian style I actually find Fuller's approach to be more forward-thinking in this sense than some of the Harlem Renaissance's more literal takes on "Black issues."

Two versions of Ethiopia, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1921 (Encyclopedia Britannica puts the date at 1914. Some versions of this existed before 1921). (left image via, right image source unavailable). This piece was later retitled Ethiopia Awakening, by someone other than Fuller. I have no idea if she approved or not. However the added "Awakening" helped the sculpture serve its retroactive purpose of ushering in the Harlem Renaissance. It had originally been commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois to symbolize the musical and industrial contributions of Black people to the US, as part of a larger 1921 exhibition called "Americans of Negro Lineage." Since Fuller had studied under Rodin and had made complex emotionally-driven group sculptures similar to Rodin's famous Burghers of Calais, Du Bois probably expected a similar take. But Fuller used the Egyptian figure as an allegory, and its striking simplicity have given it enduring fame. The one flexed hand is asymmetrical, something you never see in ancient Egyptian sculpture, and brings the sculpture squarely into the present. It's also sweet and delicate-- another unexpected twist on the figure of a Pharoah or Queen. “Here was a group," said Fuller, "who had once made history and now after a long sleep was awaking, gradually unwinding the bandage of its mummied past and looking out on life again, expectant but unafraid and with at least a graceful gesture.” Because of the allegorical figure representing the African American people, the sculpture is considered to be the first "pan-African American" art. Full disclosure, I grabbed that last factoid from the Smithsonian's site, but I don't quite understand what they mean by "pan-African American." Something representing all African-Americans as a people? The first incidence of pan-Africanism (of the international Alfrican diaspora, I assume), in America? I had trouble learning about this term and its use in 1920s art history because there was another movement in the 1960s called "pan-Africanism" that had more to do with African independence from colonialism. If I had to guess, it's linked to Garveyism and the idea of uniting and lifting up the Black race across different countries. Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s this was the most prevalent concept in Black activism in the early 20th century.

Around 1928 Fuller actually created a secret sculpture studio. Without her husband finding out, she bought property with her inheritance, oversaw the construction and maintenance of the property, and would sculpt and paint there for the next 40 years. She taught sculpture classes here as well. She turned her attention to religious art (still often with Black themes, such as a Crucifiction dedicated to a four Black girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham). When he did eventually discover the studio, he underhandedly told her he was impressed-- not with her dedication to sculpture, but that she managed to do a real estate deal all by herself. He looks like a pretty bad husband on paper, but I don't know what their relationship was actually like. In the decade preceding his death, when he was ill and blind, Fuller dedicated herself to caretaking. After he died in 1953 she remained in Framingham, continuing to exhibit her work at Howard University, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and other institutions, until her death in 1968.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller in her home studio in Framingham (bottom) and the reassembled studio in the museum in Danforth (top). Yeah, you can visit it. (images via here and here). I think this is the "secret studio" but it might be the one she'd built previously at the back of the house.


Jason by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, undated. Painted plaster. (image via).


Dark Hero, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. (Image via)

Lazy Bones, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1930. (image via).

Reverie, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1930. (image via). 

The Talking Skull, by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1939. (image via). The title comes from an African folk tale in which a boy finds a talking skull. "Tongue brought me here," the skull tells the boy-- tongue, meaning talking-- "and if you're not careful tongue will bring you here." The boy doesn't understand but he runs to the village and tells everyone he sees that he found a talking skull. They behead him for lying and the skull reiterates the warning. In another version he brings them back to the skull but it won't say anything. Everyone leaves and the skull says, "you talk too much." Given the date (the beginning of WWII) it might be about history repeating itself. Of course, it could simply be about secrets and being indiscreet. She wasn't a stranger to keeping secrets like her studio or having to wear social masks at times because of her race and gender. It may be an exploration of life and death, or of confronting lost ancestry and the passage of time.

Here's my drawing of Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller for Inktober. There are some good photographic portraits and snapshots of her around but I ended up using the hazy one in the studio that I showed above, because the atmospheric lighting effect would make a good drawing. I also thought such an incredibly lightweight lighting effect (especially in her hair) would be an interesting way to portray a sculptor whose work is solid mass. There's not much data there-- you can barely make out her features-- but I was able to use other pictures of her to fill in the details. I cropped the pose in a way that uses the implied movement and drama that Fuller's sculptures often employed. And I tried to keep the pen markings in little directional clusters that recall the hand-worked surfaces of her clay sculptures.


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