How does one find beauty in the midst of the rough?
The “rough”, equating to slum and oppressed conditions along with financial and racial hardships, can be enough to keep any individual and/or community down and out. Lost hope.
To the naked and untrained eye, the “rough” could never be an image of beauty or possibility. For those living in it daily, the image will remain a dark struggle. Through the eyes of artists, the ability to see through the visual to discover the depths of present societal conditions is a sure gift.
An artists’ lens has a way to artistically articulate what the heart and eyes digest daily but have a hard time verbalizing.
African-American Chicago artist and printmaker, Eldzier Cortor’s 1948 painting, entitled The Room No. VI, managed to fuse beauty with impoverished conditions. Using hues of browns, reds, and oranges, The Room No.VI depicted Black reality during mid-twentieth century Chicago – overcrowded and uneasy. Yet, while capturing societal ills – the painting exudes a sense of beauty.
“[Cortor] wanted to show the conditions of Chicago as they were,” explains Sarah Kelley, Henry and Gilda Buchbinder Associate Curator of American Art. “He had a lengthy description of this work as being about showing slum conditions of Chicago – about wanting to make that apparent to audiences. But he wanted to make it this very beautiful elegant piece of art.”
As an art historian and curator of the Art Institute’s exhibition, ‘They Seek A City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950, Kelley refers to her fascination of Cortor’s work and its relation to They Seek A City as “something quite unusual. The connection he made with showing social conditions and making these beautiful works of art, you don’t necessarily see that combination a lot.”
These references set the tone for the art exhibit, which runs through Sunday, June 2nd. Paying homage to the 1945 book of the same name, written by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, They Seek A City captures artist who were immigrants or migrant artist to Chicago between 1910 and 1950. Initially the book detailed the history of African American migration with Chicago being its focus.
Through cultural discourse, many African American migrants along with Mexican and European immigrants travelled to Chicago and created an art underground inspired by the poor political, volatile, and social conditions of the city. Eventually, racial lines and social statuses intermingled breeding one of the most fascinating times in Chicago – culturally and creatively.
They Seek A City features approximately 85 pieces of art loaned from the museums, cultural institutions, private collections and the Art Institute’s collection in the form of writings, paintings, sculptures, and photography. Artists showcased range from Archibald Motley whose ‘Nightlife’ piece is a highlight of the collection, Richard Wright, Walter Ellison, whose ‘Train Station”(top-featured image) is admirable of the transition to a new city for many African American’s, Mexicans and Jewish immigrants; and Bernice Berkman, to name a few.
The works of these individuals indulge a life of challenge and a freedom to create.
Sarah explains, “They’re protesting social conditions that they’re seeing in Chicago; that they’re seeing as being unfair. I think what they all felt, and Margaret Borroughs spoke about this in some of her own writings, was that this move to Chicago where they then faced difficult experiences was still a move toward being able to make these works of art. That they had this freedom to express their dissatisfaction was something new and really something wonderful for them.”
Although with the Harlem Renaissance, New York was the art mecca, the movement in Chicago, home of the Great Migration, had its pulse on creative’s. Home to the likes of poet Langston Hughes, writers Margaret Borroughs and Richard Wright, and artists such as Gordon Parks and Charles Wright, Chicago birthed the Chicago Renaissance, very much kin to what was happening in New York with their own flair.
“Chicago, really one of its more vibrant periods, to me, in art history was 1910-1950. When I look at all these artists, I think about what they had to go through just to do what they were doing, “ says Denise Gardner of the Art Institute’s Leadership Advisory Committee (LAC). “All of us have family that came to Chicago between 1910-1950, so [the exhibit] resonates personally with everybody.
It’s acknowledged that art works can be quite difficult to understand, yet, strong for a variety of reasons; that strength and amazement can reside thematically, aesthetically and sometimes both.
In orchestrating the architectural layout for They Seek A City, it was important that a story was told. This story would convey who these artists were and the reality they faced during the Great Migration of Chicago. The stories would play as the visual and literal soundtracks of these migrant and immigrant’s lives.
“I think any curator is [a storyteller]. I think this story is very much about the people involved and the stories they had to tell and the community they formed. There’s a really interesting narrative here that I’ve tried to convey of community and of communities you don’t expect to be a community,” Sarah shares.
They Seek A City opens with a first-person perspective through self-portraits of how this community of migrant artists was established. The portraits illuminate identity and each artists projected image coming to a new city. Archibald Motley, a prominent figure during this time, is seen first next to a portrait he made of his mother.
Fast-forward to the last section of the exhibit and some viewers may be surprised as to how it relates to the story being told. It’s on the new Bauhaus, which was founded in 1937 and has been studied tremendously. The new Bauhaus is an avant-garde school that was founded by Hungarian migrant László Moholy-Nagy and a fellow Hungarian friend and photographer.
“People think of this in isolation,” says Sarah relating this section to the rest of the collection. “It’s all about formal concerns, un-feathered creativity and not about a social message. But, they are somewhat connected in that we have memoirs of the left-wing artist of the Chicago Art Unit (basically all of the artists in the show), getting together with the members of the new Bauhaus with Moholy-Nagy and arguing, debating and spending hours together.”
Denise adds, “One of the artists in the show is Marion Perkins and his grand daughter used to work [at the Art Institute of Chicago]. I remember her saying he had a day job but here he was making these beautiful marble sculptures. There’s a picture of him on his porch just chiseling away on one of the typical Chicago porches. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a moment like that again in Chicago’s history where you have that much vibrancy of artists just trying to get what they do done.”
It was history that brought these artists together — history and the struggle to just be, create and live. They all had unique experiences and found a way to bring them together through art education and art practices around the city. Art speaks volumes. It connects people in ways a connection was never imagined and helps us discover that we all have more commonalities than we realize.
“There’s a lot of diversity art in this exhibition in terms of who the people were. It’s also important to realize that it is very much a community,” Sarah reinforces. “It’s a group of artists who in many cases, often get separated out. You don’t necessarily associate all of these artists as being part of the same small Chicago community. But, they knew each other and they all worked and supported each other.”