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Charles White's Humanist

Thanks to the courtesy of the artist, Charles White, I have been able to see a "preview" of his exhibition of paintings and drawings, which can be seen at the ACA Gallery in New York, February 9-28. It will be, like every exhibition of this artist's work in recent years, an outstanding event in our country's art life. And those who have been following his work will be overjoyed to see that he has made a qualitative leap in a development that from its beginning had held high the banner of realism and love for the working people.

The keynote of Charles White's work may be expressed in the words, "What is truly human is beautiful." It seems to be a simple statement, yet it took centuries of bitter struggle to bring to the fore of social consciousness the true character, the humanity, the depth and beauty of the greatest part of the people, the working people, whose labor has made possible all the achievements of civilization and the discoveries of science. For ages, it was the exploiters of their fellow men who commissioned artists to paint their portraits, demanding that the artists paint them like gods, or portray them in resplendent robes that would emphasize the difference between them and the rest of humanity. In their minds, it was only they who were worth being recorded in art. They could not see the great mass of common humanity as human beings.

Charles White paints the working people, and particularly his own Negro people, not in resplendent robes but in the garments of labor overalls, battered straw hats, simple cotton dresses in the fields and at home. And in the beauty and richness of character of these faces and figures he has not merely echoed the portraits of the past, but brought something new. For the marks of labor are found in the faces and figures. Along with this appears the strength that comes from having met adversity and refused to succumb to it, and the dignity and confidence which arises out of this strength.

There is a tradition, of course, for this kind of art. It is found in some of the portrait sculpture of Africa, in the work of Rembrandt, Goya, Daumier and Repin, and in the United States, to name but two, in the work of Winslow Homer and John Sloan. But it can be said flatly that no artist up to now in our country has painted that working people with the depth, richness, love and understanding found in these works of Charles White. They recall something of the quality of the great spirituals, which, created under slavery, expressed in music the dignity, human character, right to love and sorrow, and the determination to fight for liberation, of the Negro people.

A profound lesson emerges from these paintings and drawings, one particularly important in these days when many minds succumb to fear and hysteria. It is the lesson of understanding the strength and unconquerable character of the working people; it is the lesson of confidence in the future. And it is no accident that it should be a Negro artist who teaches us this lesson. For to the Negro people reactionary violence is nothing new. For three hundred years they have met conditions of terrible adversity and conquered them. Today in fighting for their own rights, they are in the forefront of the struggle for the rights of all Americans.

Charles White's road has not been an easy one. He was born thirty-four years ago in Chicago, his father a railroad and steel worker, his mother a domestic worker. They bought him a violin and also, at the age of seven, a paint set. He studied the violin for several years, but what he always wanted to be was an artist, and he drew and painted in his spare time while working as a bus boy, newspaper boy, waiter, sign painter, valet, cook. It was on the work relief projects of the depression years that he was able to for the first time to devote full time to painting.

Since then it is as an artist that he has made a precarious living. He has received honors, including two Rosenwald fellowships, a grant in 1952 from the National Academy of Arts and Letters, and most recently a $500 prize award from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in its show of water colors, drawings and prints. He is represented in the Library of Congress, the Whitney museum, the permanent collections of many Negro colleges, as well as in the Tretykov Gallery in Moscow. Yet he has never been given real recognition by the United States bourgeoisie. Barred to him, because he is a Negro and also because he is a realist, are the avenues of advancement which open so easily to other painters, particularly the purveyors of worthless abstractions, "automatisms" and meaningless symbolisms.

The trend on the WPA art projects, among many progressive painters, was one of marrying the seeming "liberation" of the abstract and symbolic trends with some hint of a realistic and working class imagery. From the start Charles White devoted himself to the working class subject. Yet it was not easy to find the best path. He avoided the superficial resemblance to life, the naturalism, of academic art. The problem was to enrich his art with ideas, with profound meaning. For a while he sought this through partly symbolic means such as the simplification of features, the enlargement of the hands, the use of bold brush strokes and gleaming color surfaces. Even this work had the power of standing for the human image as the center of art, and for a loving, realistic approach to people, as against the formalistic currents.

The great step he has made recently, as seen so well in the present show, is towards a greater naturalness, and with this a greater depth of psychology, expressiveness and beauty. He has also tackled more profoundly the problem of groups of people, and therefore of the relationships between people. His technique has become immeasurably richer and more subtle as a tool in his hand. It is this path, of expanding the portrayal of characteristic working class actions and relationships, which promises the most for his future development.

Of the twelve pictures in the show, three are oil paintings, and in them, along with the tenderness he displays towards his human subjects, such as a man and woman embracing, or a man playing the guitar while a woman listens (this done in memory of the great folk artist, Huddie Ledbetter), he discloses a color of great sensitivity, and realistic, soft play of light. Three are drawings, including the moving one of a Negro woman raising her hands to her face, which won the Metropolitan Museum award. And there are six which are hard to describe. Done with a combination of charcoal and carbon pencil, they have such a wealth of fine detail, a variety of tones and finesse of drawing, that they can be called not drawings, but "paintings" in black and white. It is in these works that the depth and beauty of his human subjects are best disclosed, as well as his ability to give them expressive gestures that for all their seeming simplicity, have an epic character.

One of these, called "Dawn of a New Tomorrow," is reproduced on the cover of this issue. Another, "This Harvest Talk," shows two men in a field sharpening a scythe. It breathes a love of land and respect for labor. A third, of a man clasping a child, is called "Ye Shall Inherit the Earth."

A profound influence on Charles White was his recent journey to Europe, and his discussions with artists of the Soviet Union and the people's democracies, as well as with progressive artists of France and Italy. What he gained was a greater confidence in his own path. As he says, an artist at home sometimes feels that the active, most conscious, fighters for peace and for human rights, as well as the artists who have chosen the realistic path in order to portray this, are in the minority. But the truth is that the people fighting for peace and the realist artists are throughout the world by far the great majority.

There was a time when White would sit before a canvas or drawing board and wonder what to paint and how to paint it. Today he has no such problems. With each step, in which he united his art with the real life, character, democratic struggles and progress of the Negro people and the American people as a whole, ideas and subjects began to come thick and fast. Compared to the infantile character of the formalist, non-objective and symbolist art, his portrayals of people have a true maturity, the maturity which comes from the role he plays as a person and artist in social life. Yet he does not feel he has attained his artistic maturity. He knows that as he takes up new problems of portraying life and people, he will have to wrestle with new problems of form. The truth is that realistic art is by far the most difficult and demanding kind of art, for it is the enemy of all formulas, all pat stylistic solutions. Charles White works with full confidence in people and in a world of peace and human progress. It is this confidence that radiates from his work.

-Sidney Finkelstein

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