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Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess
May 28 - October 9, 2016
George Gershwin's famed opera, Porgy and Bess, left an indelible impression on our country with its portrayal of life and race relations in Charleston in the 1920s. The story of Porgy, Bess, Crown, Maria, Sportin' Life, and the other residents of Catfish Row has been communicated primarily through the arts of literature, music, and performance. However, the visual arts have also played a crucial role in disseminating the story of Porgy, and of African American life in Charleston, to a wide audience. Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess examines interpretations of the opera created by visual artists through the years, along with the important role this artwork has played in shaping public perception. (right: Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess, installation at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC, photo ©MCG Photography)
The exhibition includes works from the 1930s by George Biddle, Henry Botkin, and George Gershwin, all of whom created significant paintings of life in Charleston and the surrounding area. The 1930s works are paired with more recent interpretations by contemporary artists Kara Walker and Jonathan Green. Walker created a suite of twenty lithographs to illustrate the Porgy and Bess libretto published in 2013, and Green served as the visual designer for the 2016 Spoleto Festival USA production of Porgy and Bess. Together, these works of art capture the eighty-year history of Porgy and Bess, an enduring masterpiece of American art.
George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess is based on the 1925 novel Porgy by Charleston author DuBose Heyward. The novel caught the attention of Gershwin, who reportedly read the entire book in one sitting and immediately wrote Heyward about a possible collaboration. Heyward and his wife Dorothy developed Porgy into a stage production that ran on Broadway in 1927. After several years of discussion, work began on the opera. Heyward wrote the libretto and Gershwin composed and orchestrated the music, with his brother Ira Gershwin contributing to the lyrics. Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway on October 10, 1935 at the Alvin Theatre.
Porgy and Bess is set in Charleston in a fictional African American tenement called Catfish Row. It tells the story of Porgy, a disabled beggar, who falls in love with Bess, a former prostitute and drug addict trying to escape the power of an abusive man named Crown and of a drug dealer named Sportin' Life. Crown murders a resident of Catfish Row and escapes, but later returns in search of Bess while a hurricane ravages the city. As the drama unfolds, the characters draw strength from their faith, their cultural traditions, and the close-knit community of Catfish Row.
The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, organized Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess, which is on view from May 28 through October 9, 2016.
(above: Alfred Hutty (American, 1877-1954), Cabbage Row, 1928, Etching on paper. Gibbes Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Alfred Hutty 1955.007.0046)
This print depicts 89-91 Church Street in Charleston, a complex of connected buildings called Cabbage Row. The name derives from vegetable vendors who sold goods in front of the complex. The buildings are also the basis for DuBose Heyward's Catfish Row in the novel Porgy. Heyward lived across the street from Cabbage Row and changed several details for the novel, such as moving Catfish Row to the waterfront, but many remained unchanged. In Porgy he wrote, "Catfish Row, in which Porgy lived, was not a row at all, but a great brick structure that lifted its three stories about the three sides of a court. Over the entrance there still remained a massive grill of Italian wrought iron."
(above: Henry Botkin (American, 1896-1983), Porgy and Bess with George, Near Folly Island, 1934, Watercolor and ink on paper. Gibbes Museum of Art, Museum purchase 1988.011.0002)
In the summer of 1934, George Gershwin invited his cousin Henry Botkin to accompany him to Charleston while he composed Porgy and Bess. The pair rented a cottage on Folly Beach, across the street from the home of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. To fuel their creative endeavors, Gershwin and Botkin traveled throughout the area and visited African American churches, absorbing the atmosphere and culture of the Gullah people. Botkin sketched his surroundings, including this charming watercolor and ink drawing inscribed, "Porgy and Bess with George/ Near Folly Island."
(above: George Biddle (American, 1885-1973), Church Street Amusements, 1930, Watercolor and ink on paper. Gibbes Museum of Art, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Winnie Edwards Murray Fund 1985.027.0001)
In 1930, George Biddle traveled to Charleston where he met DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy. Biddle spent the months of May and June 1930 sketching genre scenes in the city and on nearby Folly Beach. Biddle's time in Charleston resulted in a large folio of drawings, mostly pen and ink with subtle watercolor washes, including Church Street Amusements. This drawing was reproduced as the frontispiece for the original Porgy and Bess libretto published in 1935.
(above: George Biddle (American, 1885-1973), The Battery, Evening, 1931, Oil on canvas. Gibbes Museum of Art, Museum purchase 1999.002)
A number of sketches from George Biddle's Charleston sojourn were later developed into oil paintings, including The Battery, Evening. The artist's choice of subject matter demonstrates his interest in race relations: three black women care for two white children in White Point Gardens, located in Charleston's wealthiest neighborhood. The figures' exaggerated features are rendered in caricature, but also reflect the style of American Regionalism, a painting movement with which Biddle was deeply involved. Whether Biddle intended this painting as social critique is unknown; however, his lifelong interest in the social power of art suggests this is the case.
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The above texts, including text panels and descriptive text of selected paintings in the exhibition, were written by Pamela S. Wall, Curator of Exhibitions at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, where she manages the special exhibitions program and directs the museum's contemporary art initiatives. Prior to her tenure at the Gibbes, she worked at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Washington and Lee University and an M.A. in Art History from the University of South Carolina.
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Checklist for the exhibition
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