What is it? The Gibbes Museum hosts an exhibit of paintings ranging from the 18th century to the present that examines plantations and their role in southern history and culture. This traveling exhibit should be a sober, contemplative escape from the frenzy of Piccolo Festival. The paintings have an interesting diversity, considering they approach the same subject. If the weather gets too hot or the crowd to wily, duck into the Gibbes for a peak at the South before it had air-conditioning. And then imagine what slaves endured.
Why see it? An exhibition that looks offenders in the eye: Plantations still carry with them the stigma of slavery. Even today, when most of the old offenders are merely sprawls of southern countryside, plantations manage to evoke interest and disgust. A collection with historical implications and breadth should be enough to rouse most viewers, not to mention the variety of involved painters, technique, and talent.
Who should go? Anyone interested in painting, social history, race, or free tours at the Gibbes.
Piccolo Spoleto Visual Arts Exhibitions • $9/adults; $7/seniors, students; $5/children 6-12, free/5 and under • On view through Aug. 3 • Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St. • (888) 374-2656
Tragic Glory: Landscapes of Slavery is a candid look at plantation life
The nearly 100 pieces in the Gibbes Museum’s latest exhibit — Landscapes of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art — explore the numerous attitudes and interpretations associated with slavery in America. Some work paints a positive portrait of plantation life; other pieces criticize it.
The exhibition’s first section, Politics, includes art from the early days of plantation life. The paintings — specifically a work by Junius Brutus Stearns of George Washington at his Mt. Vernon plantation — examine the politics behind a situation many considered unavoidable. It is not shocking to see Washington on his plantation with slaves. But the power of these masterful paintings forces us to reconsider his, and this country’s, rise to power.
With the tools of the painter out of their reach, slaves had to be innovative in how they expressed themselves. These expressions are collected in the exhibition’s second section, Identity. The plantation pieces here — pottery, sculpture, quilts, and baskets — highlight the need for utilitarian tools and creative outlets. The work delivers authentic, candid glimpses of slave life.
Following the Civil War, the imagined tranquility of plantations received new attention. Much of the work in the Nostalgia section is contradictory. Edwin Harleston’s oil painting of Boone Hall is lovely — vibrant brush strokes swish like the rustling of leaves — yet his depiction of the plantation is decidedly optimistic. Unlike his black contemporaries, who had begun incriminating plantations, Harleston used a glory-bound perspective to honor his roots. The effect is unsettling and complicates an attempt to understand his artistic aspirations.
Also included in the Nostalgia section is Eudora Welty’s photograph, “The Ruins of Windsor.” Known principally as the grandmother of southern literature, Welty also had a knack for photography. “The Ruins of Windsor” shows pillars overgrown with brush. A dirt road, lined with a wire fence, stretches toward the pillars. A woman’s shadow can be seen on the road. Her presence is ghostly among the skeletal remains. The photo contemplates the past with sorrowful, realistic eyes.
The final section is Protest, in which the roles of slaves and plantations have been reversed. Gone are the days of grand farmhouses resting on lush green hills. Gone are the obsequious slaves, happy to earn praise from their master. The exhibition focuses on the world of artists whose work eviscerates the legacy of plantations.
“Foundation” is a piece by Juan Logan, featuring 42 cast-iron blocks which are stacked on top of each other to form a pyramid. Carved into the blocks are figures on their hands and knees, pointing out exactly who was truly responsible for the growth and prosperity of the South.
William Dunlap’s “Landscape and Variable” provides an interesting backdrop to the room. Contemporary in style, the painting centers on a sprawling estate. In the foreground, a gangly dog investigates a crop of rotten fruit. The fruit is vibrant and alive despite its shriveled state. Beyond the dog, a dark, streaked sky meets the humped, damp-colored lawn. A mansion, forlorn and anonymous, rests on the crest of the hill. “Landscape” uses nostalgia and protest as a means to express the multiple lenses through which plantations can be viewed.
This laudable exhibition is difficult to accept. Nonetheless, the tragic glory of the American South has given rise to important art.