|Charles White: Beauty
The folio of Six Drawings by Charles White, issued by "Masses and Mainstream", is a happy event not only for the people who will gain beauty and inspiration from these tender and human documents shining out from the walls of their homes, but for an art world satiated by the myriads of meaningless and tiresome experiments in how to paint or sculpt something which reminds one of nothing.
Rockwell Kent's sensitive and searching introduction is a worthy adjunct to the six very faithfully rendered reproductions of the original black and white drawings, made by the comparatively modern process of offset lithography. Kent pays high tribute to Charles White for the humanism and for the artistically successful execution of these monumentally conceived drawings of people.
The problem of getting art to the people has been a subject of serious thought on the part of progressive artists, educators, trade unionists. Paintings, except for murals in buildings where the broad public has a chance to see them, are in general too expensive for the average worker. Painters in countries where little or no government support for the artist exists, such as our country today, are obliged to rely in main for sale of their work on rich collectors and middle class buyers in the higher income brackets. Artists have been separated from the audience which could and should be their great source of strength and energy. This source of creative power is living, functioning humanity of which art has to be a part to attain greatness.
By bringing out this portfolio of six large ready-to-frame prints at $3.00, "Masses and Mainstream" is showing the way to a practical realization of the artists' and the peoples' desires. And in choosing White, the magazine has chosen a Negro people's artist who can not only draw human beings with the dignity they deserve but who gives us a penetrating and symbolic rendering of the beauty of the Negro people.
We are fortunate that modern technology has been able to help in this effort at mass distribution of art, available to the people. And because of this fact I believe that it is proper for us to review briefly some of the significant factors which have contributed to or restricted the growth of a graphic art in reproduction, for the people. This seems to be necessary in order to place White's effort historically and will lead logically into a more detailed discussion of the individual prints in the portfolio.
I presume that the development of wood engraving and etching on copper plates was primarily a result of the first European type-printed books and the consequent demand for reproduction in them. Albrecht Durer's wood engravings and etchings were produced in very limited numbers; so were Rembrandt's at a later date. Some editions of a plate were limited to five prints to make them rarer and more valuable as collectors' items!
The unhappy practice of destroying a plate after a limited number of impressions, has been common among etchers and engravers right up to present times. This is the same type of financial operation as dumping ship loads of bananas and destroying the potato crop to keep the price of the commodity up in disregard of the empty stomachs of the poor. People can use more art as they can use more bananas.
Goya's powerful graphic art was not as readily available to large masses of people as it should have been nor was the work of the great English satirist Thomas Rowlandson, for the etching plate was their principal medium of reproducing drawings. The average etching print which is printed singly by hand, takes twenty minutes to produce and unless the copper is reinforced by a steel facing (which some claim detracts from the sensitiveness of the line) a mere 50 to 100 prints can be the normal expectancy of one copper engraved plate. Daumier is perhaps the great usher-inner of the lithograph age and of a people's graphic art of near mass proportions. His hundreds of biting comments on the rottenness of the law courts, political intrigue and the supreme beauty of simple people gave an inkling of the eventual mass production of an art for the people which our technology a hundred years later could accomplish if the powers that be were as sensitive to the need for an art within the range of people as are the initiators of Charles White's portfolio.
Daumier's drawings reached thousands of people because, mainly, he did so many of them. He reached his largest audience through newspapers, pamphlets and other publications, as in our country and in our time did Art Young, Boardman, Robinson, Bob Minor, Hugo Gellert and William Gropper, to mention a few of the great names. The era of the litho was an advance in mass distribution probably climaxed in France by the amazingly beautiful colored lithos of Toulouse-Lautrec, often used in a most popular form of theatre billboards and music hall ads.
On account of poor technical facilities during and preceding the people's revolution in Mexico, artists who made powerful cartoons for pamphlets and one-sheet newspapers cut their designs on boards and printed them one by one as block prints. The incisive work of Posada, one of the best of the Mexican people's artists, was done in this medium. His work inclines towards the macabre parched earth, skeletons, his people sombre and suffering. But his vigorous line stirred up the action of self-preservation in his people, the down-trodden Indian peasants.
Posada sees man starkly and not often as a handsome embodiment of perfection. He must have shared the belief of Millet, the great painter of the French worker of the soil, who said: "Beauty does not dwell in the face; it radiates forth from whole figure and appears in the suitableness of the action to the subject. Your pretty peasants would be ill-suited for the picking up of wood, for the gleaning of the fields in August, for drawing water from a well." Posada's work is beautiful because it functioned for the purpose and the time in which it was done. He was followed by many powerful graphic artists in Mexico, culminating in a wonderful, active group of artists called the Taller de Grafica Popular, who are today as always bringing art to the people of Mexico.
Another example of a people's art conquering restricted conditions and limited techniques is to be seen in the beautiful printed posters done by the combined three-man Soviet team calling themselves Kukriniksky. These works, very powerful and moving, were done under battle conditions behind the front lines during Hitler's invasion; they are similar as people's art to the work of the Mexicans and aesthetically can be compared to Toulouse-Lautrec. These were done on wood blocks. They were printed in small sections which were stuck together to make large posters in color. Printing was done by rubbing spoons over the back of the paper which had been applied to the inked wood block. How limited the quantity production of these works done under fire, compared to today's mass production methods now becoming available to the artist wishing to reach the people witness this portfolio which Charles White has given us!
Charles White sees human beings in a much more handsome light than did Posada and much nearer to the embodiment of physical perfection than Toulouse-Lautrec. His technique is of the smoothest perfection, his forms are often like polished marble. In this respect and in the social message his work has an affinity to Kent's. White sees people rock-like in their physical calmness and strength within, they may be deeply moved by emotion like "The Mother," which to me is the one where White has most successfully (in the words of Rockwell Kent) "Transcended as only true art can the stone, the crayon, black and white of which they are contrived."
The "Lincoln" print could be the most popular or have the most general appeal. In its sculptural massiveness there is a general depth of sympathy shining out. The girl with hands raised to the dove in "Dawn of Life" is very much alive in the tender uplift of her beautiful face. All the faces Charles White draws have beauty. There are no imperfections here. White is giving us a world which he wants to come which he has faith will come. He sweeps aside the pernicious vapors of inequality, cruelty and death which do exist here and now.
The happy, hopeful faces in "Let's Walk Together" make you feel that these drawings really do function for the purpose and time in which they are done at a time when the hope for Mankind must be asserted daily to counteract the fears, the uncertainty which are to be seen in so many faces everywhere around us today.
My favorite print of all in the portfolio is "Ye Shall Inherit the Earth" possibly because to me it seems to live more in its movement outside of the beauty of the faces. There is a ruggedness and an earthy asymmetry about the figure carrying the beautiful little child which expresses power.
The words of the peasant painter, Millet, voiced 100 years ago, seem to express better than I could, the beauty of Charles White's "Ye Shall Inherit the Earth." He said, "When I paint a mother I shall strive to represent her beauty solely in the look she gives her child. Beauty is Expression."
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