Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on March 22, 2006, in Resource Library with permission of the author. The essay is included in a gallery brochure published by the Indiana University Art Museum for the exhibition "Black Spirit": Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor being held at the Museum March 7 - May 7, 2006. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:
"Black Spirit": Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor
by Matt Backer
Eldzier Cortor appears most often in the pages of art historical texts for his work with the Black female form. In the middle of the 1940s, he was the first artist to make this subject the focus of his oeuvre. During the following decades, Cortor experimented with diverse treatments, from abstract studies and polished designs to closely observed narrative vignettes, and he continues to work primarily with the female figure to this day; however, his earliest professional works are not so thematically consistent. As a worker in the Federal Art Project (FAP), a branch of the Works Progress Administration designed to both employ the nation's artists and to fill public buildings with art, Cortor drew genre scenes of Depression-era Bronzeville, the South Side of Chicago. The Task (1945), Peelin' Potatoes (ca. 1945, fig. 1), In These Troubled Times (1940), and similar dignified portraits inspired the neighborhood attendants of frequent community-centered exhibitions. In the years following his FAP appointment, Cortor traveled widely in search of symbols that could stand for all African Americans, and he found one in the Black woman. As he explained, "The Black woman represents the Black race. She is the Black Spirit; she conveys a feeling of eternity and a continuance of life." As neighborhood visitors to the South Side Art Center could take pride in heroic portraits of members of their community, so Cortor hoped all African Americans could identify with an idealized symbol of the "Black Spirit."
An early inspiration for Cortor's celebration of African Americans was the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper to which his parents subscribed. The Defender reported the accomplishments of African Americans in the local community as well as across the nation. Robert Abbott, the founder and editor, regularly encouraged southern African Americans to move to the industrialized cities of the north for the factory jobs, improved social conditions, and vibrant African American community. With hundreds of thousands of others, the Cortor family answered this call and participated in the Great Migration in 1917, moving from Richmond, Virginia, to Chicago.
As a child, Cortor especially appreciated the Defender for "Bungleton Green," a comic by Leslie Green. The weekly strip tracked the adventures of a tramp, Bung, who had also migrated to Chicago and suffered every possible difficulty of adjusting to life in the big city. Despite his naïveté, Bungleton eventually won a fortune by traveling to Africa. As a young man studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Cortor may have recalled Bungleton's fortuitous trip to Africa when he himself found a source of wealth in the distant continent. An assistant art historian, Kathleen Blacksheer, introduced Cortor's class to an exhibit of African sculpture at the Field Museum. Cortor cites the cylindrical torsos and limbs of these sculptures as the inspiration for his unique handling of the human body.
Ms. Blackshear's field trip was inspired by the writings of Alain Locke, the preeminent theorist of African American art during the Harlem Renaissance. Locke urged artists to consider their ancestral African art as inspiration for the development of a newly vital style. In particular, he insisted, "The Negro physiognomy must be freshly and objectively conceived on its own patterns if it is ever to be seriously and importantly interpreted. Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid." Locke implored artists to redress the dearth of positive imagery of Blacks in American culture at the time. Cortor would dedicate his career to recovering alternate veins of African American representation and using these vibrant celebrations of African heritage to redefine Black physiognomy.
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