Dynamic technique, politics collide in Hale Woodruff's Talladega College murals, by Felicia Feaster

More about Hale Woodruff's historical 1930s murals, the history of African American Murals, and American History

Recommended by Isabel Rojas-Williams, Art Historian (The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, MCLA), article written  by Felicia Feaster.

"The Mutiny on the Amistad," (1939) oil on canvas by Hale Aspacio Woodruff, one of the six murals from Talladega College featured at the High Museum.

"One of the most striking features of African-American artist and teacher Hale Woodruff’s murals on display in the High Museum’s “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” is the vivacity of their colors: the deep, rosy pinks, eggplants and swimming pool blues. It is one of the enduringly magical characteristics of fine art: how the decades and in some cases the centuries can melt away as an artwork bristles with the immediacy of something freshly conceived.

The six commissioned murals painted between 1939 and 1942 and housed at Alabama’s Talladega College -- founded in 1867 as an institution for freed slaves -- document important moments in African-American history. Three of the works are dedicated to the 1839 slave mutiny aboard the Amistad ship; one depicts the Underground Railroad; and two commemorate the founding of Talladega College -- including the largest work at 70 x 243 inches.

In addition to the headlining murals, there are early paintings; studies for these and other mural projects; prints and even a side wing of the exhibition devoted to the conservation of the Talladega murals. In a move away from what has in the past often been the museum’s tendency to trumpet great works without engaging a deeper conversation, this Woodruff show wisely provides the necessary elixir of context for both Woodruff’s career and the social and art history the murals emerged from. The first professor of art at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), Woodruff was important not just for his artwork, but for the example he set, of an artist engaged with America’s racial politics.

From earlier works in Woodruff's career we see the influence of Cezanne and Picasso-modernism and Cubism, showing up in the fluid, kinetic forms of the Talladega murals whose human figures sway and bend like live oaks. Woodruff also fell under the sway of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s social consciousness (Woodruff spent some time studying in Mexico with Rivera himself). Of course as a black man living in America, Woodruff didn’t need a Mexican Communist to school him on injustice. Woodruff observed first-hand the profound poverty ringing Atlanta University.

His weeping forms and muddy color palette often give a sinister, dream-like element that underscores the social horrors he depicts. A desolate hillside and the remains of a home in the 1936 painting “Southland” depicts the region in almost nightmare terms. A still-shocking suite of linocut prints included in “Rising Up” offer singularly disturbing portraits of Southern life. Two of those linocuts made in 1935 offer graphic depictions of lynchings and appeared in a New York exhibition on that theme also featuring work by George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton.

An interesting aspect of the show is the remarkable attention given, in Woodruff's Depression-era America, to the country's racial divide and the specter of racism. While every American schoolchild today knows about the March on Washington, the story of the slave uprising aboard the Amistad is less well-known. The murals reveal not only Woodruff’s singular talent, but little discussed, instructive facets of American history. Lest one imagine Woodruff was one-note divisive, his vision of a Talladega campus built by both black and white men represented in “The Building of Savery Library” (1942) mural conveys a spirit of harmony and optimism about America’s future.

The murals themselves are remarkable not just for enduring the decades so well, but for the way Woodruff makes history, as the cliche goes, come alive."

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