Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Watusi vs. L'Escargot: Another Desperate Republican Attempt to Smear Obama

Henri Matisse, L'Escargot, 1953

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963

The Republican hate machine and the mobs they incite have hardly been reticent on any "issue" which they manufacture or exaggerate in an attempt to bring Obama down. Witness the "Birthers", the "Deathers", the "Tea Party-ers", the "Great White Hopers", and the acolytes of Glenn Beck who embrace his charges of racism against the president.

As reported in Media Matters:

Given the gleeful mocking of President Obama over Chicago's failed effort to host the 2016 Olympics, and shameless smears of his unexpected Nobel Peace Prize, let's pause and ask: Is there anything conservatives won't turn into a cudgel to bludgeon the president? Take, for example, the art hanging on the White House walls.

The particular issue that Conservative websites have latched onto is the similarity between Watusi (Hard Edge), a 1963 Alma Thomas canvas selected for display in the White House, and L'Escargot (The Snail), a late (1953) cutout by Henri Matisse, which Thomas viewed at MoMA.

The complaint issued by Michelle Malkin and other Conservative bloggers is that the Obama White House did not just indulge in "sentimental stretching" to favor African-American artists, but was actually clueless in abetting an act of artistic plagiarism by choosing a "knock off" of Matisse.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Alma Thomas was quite cognizant of the nature of her "borrowings", also of reversing Matisse's color selections and turning the picture plane 90 degrees to the right. Both devices were explicitly chosen to make a particular aesthetic/political statement, undoubtedly influenced by the turbulent civil rights climate of the 1960s, when racial equality and black identity were at the forefront of the national dialogue.

From a January 2002 article in Art in America by Joe Fyfe:

A good place to begin thinking about Alma Thomas's ravishing late work might be the moment in 1964 when, close to paralysis and bedridden, the 73-year-old artist found herself staring at the hollyhock shadows she had known her entire life and calculating how to use them in her paintings. A year earlier, she had seen the late Matisse cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Matisse's work had prompted her to paint an acrylic-on-canvas version of his collage The Snail (1953), in which nearly all the original colors were reversed. Thomas named her painting Watusi (Hard Edge), after Chubby Checker's dance hit "The Watusi." As well as marrying high modernism with the popular culture of black America - then entering the American mainstream - the title she chose noted Matisse's debt to African art.
Art historian Ann Gibson discusses the political message inherent in Thomas' "mimicry and revision of Matisse" in her contribution to Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings:
The close resemblance between Watusi and L'Escargot (especially evident when Thomas's painting is turned ninety degrees to the right) suggests an overlap between Thomas's determination to comprehend the lessons of modernism and her identification -- and perhaps her sense of rivalry -- with one of its principle figures. However, the title Watusi, which refers both to an African people and to a hit tune of the early 1960s (Chubby Checker's record "The Watusi" was released in 1961), suggests that she used elements of Matisse's art not only as models of abstraction but also to refer to African people and their representation in popular culture, just as elements of art made by Africans could reflect, in Western modernism, European desires and European high culture.

Thomas's radical revisions of Matisse's colors (but not the values of his collaged shapes) to their near opposite on the color wheel, as well as her opening of the "frame" -- blues in her painting, oranges in his - are also noteworthy. By permitting the white shapes to penetrate the frame, Thomas animates and frees both the white areas and the colored forms: The frame no longer contains the central organization, and the framing shapes join in the "dance" of the shapes inside.

When Thomas's mimicry and revision of Matisse is read in the context of her entitling her painting Watusi, one sees more than an implicit defiance of modernism's creed of originality. What does it mean for an ambitious but comparatively unknown artist to appropriate in paint an important recent work by an internationally recognized master? Especially when she changes the title from a word that suggests not only a sluggish mollusk whose movements are drastically curtailed by its shell but also an epicurean dish whose very name connotes elite privilege? And when the title she selects is the name of a people legendary for their height and strength and after whom, during the civil rights struggle, a popular song has been named? With the title
Watusi, Thomas sets her critique (and homage) in the context of early-twentieth century borrowing from Africa by such revered modernists as Matisse, visually loosening his frame and conceptually replacing his upper-class European reference with one that connotes both African and popular American culture. The similarity of forms in Thomas's painting and Matisse's collage suggests the interchangeability, and thus the equality, of social, national, and economic values.

We wouldn't expect online Conservative trash throwers to be versed in postmodern art theory and its embrace of issues as diverse as appropriation, identity, received culture, revisionism, and authorship. Certainly we would not assume them to be aware of the Pictures Generation, of Sherrie Levine's rephotographing Walker Evans, of Richard Prince reproducing images taken from advertising or publishing and re-contextualizing it as high art. Any of the self reflexive issues which engage contemporary arts discussions - irony about authorship, examination of sources, institutional critique - are understandably beyond their ken.

But their ignorance of high art discourse is hardly the point. What's clearly revealed is their kneejerk demonizing of any Obama decision or initiative, their shameless ability to sneer at Afro American culture, and their stereotyping of anything that emanates from Black America as somehow suspect in honesty or rigor. In their rush to judgment, the Conservative bloggers resemble nothing so much as an aesthetic lynch mob.

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