"Black Spirit": Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor

by Matt Backer



In his heroic portraits of African Americans from the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cortor avoids common stereotypes and dignifies his subjects through their labor. He did not find an opportunity to respond directly to Locke's call to reinterpret African American physiognomy until 1944, when he applied for a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation. His submitted plan of work reveals sympathy for Locke's project:

As a Negro artist I have been particularly concerned with painting Negro racial types not only as such but in connection with particular problems in color, design and composition. . . I have felt an especial interest in painting Negroes whose cultural tradition had been only slightly influenced by whites. [In] the Sea Islands, which run along the coast from Savannah, Georgia to Charleston, South Carolina, the home of the Gullah Negroes, I should like to. . . paint a series of pictures which would reflect the particular physical and racial characteristics of the Gullahs.

The foundation awarded Cortor the fellowship, and he spent two years studying both the features of the traditional Sea Islanders and their way of life. This twin study of physical and cultural traits is evident in Untitled: Study Sketch for 'A Song' (1948, fig. 2). A face in profile covers the left side of the composition. In contrast to the minutely described physiognomic details, the narrative scene of boat, pole, lashings, seagull and pale sun are briefly treated. The title of the piece suggests a relationship between face and narrative vignette; is this a picture of a Gullah's song about his life as a fisherman? If so, it is a hard life of which he sings; his boat is empty, and the lashings suggest that his boat must be raised to protect it from the ravages of Atlantic storms. The simple beauty of the long and lean face reflects the austerity of Gullah life.

In the following years, Cortor refined the essential features of this type to create the image of the Black woman, his ideally beautiful symbol for all African Americans. The narrative elements of FAP era pieces and Sea Islands scenes disappear from his later work as he focused increasingly on problems of abstract design in combination with the Black woman; however, the connotations of austerity and simplicity attached to the Gullah physiognomy remain in her bold, elongated features and plain field-worker's head-wrap (fig. 3). Cortor often posed his subjects in profile and adds a frontal view to many prints, so that viewers might objectively observe the Gullah type. Nevertheless, Cortor's prints present physiognomy not as typical but as ideal. He does not simply record the physiognomy of Black women; he celebrates the beauty of their faces. The inspiration of African sculpture emerges more clearly in these later works, with cylindrical, graceful, elongated limbs, torso, and neck. The sculptural quality of the women emerges particularly in Compositional Study No. III (1978, fig. 4), where subtly modulated ovals add rounded form to the prominent features of her face.

Cortor's interest in the Gullah as inspiration for beautiful models of African Americans is unusual; most artists looked directly to Africa as a source of uncorrupted, authentic heritage. His preference for the Sea Islands suggests familiarity with the 1941 volume The Myth of the Negro, in which Melville Herskovits argued against the pervasive "mythology which holds that the force of superior European custom was so overwhelming that nothing of Africa could stand in the face of it." Rather, "slightly modified African sanctions," or cultural parameters, infused all aspects of African American culture.[3] As Cortor noted in his report of progress to the Rosenwald Foundation, he was particularly drawn to the Gullahs, because they preserved their "rich African heritage" from the time of the Civil War, when, by General Sherman's order, they took possession of the islands in return for their service to the Union Army. [4] The Gullah preserved not only authentic African heritage but also the traditional culture of African Americans who had left the South behind them through the Great Migration. His sculpturally beautiful Black woman embodies both African heritage and the shared African American past.

In the decades that followed his two years amongst the Gullah, Cortor remained dedicated to Sea Islands culture as a model for African American identity. From paintings to drawings, he explored styles that complemented the beauty of his subjects. In 1946, he extended his exploration of the black female form to the print medium, with the intention of making his art available to a broader audience. The numbered titles of his prints call attention to the artist's experimental method of working; he produced more than 30 versions of some works. Each numbered series marks a consistent stylistic and thematic treatment of the model, but inventive stylistic exploration distinguishes one series from the next. For example, the bold, geometric shapes of Compositional Study No. III refer to the Art Deco style of the New Negro movement; the design captures the rhythm and form that Locke so admired in African sculpture. In Dance Composition No. 31 (1978), Cortor employs a different style, which evokes basketry and dance, two crafts venerated by the Gullah as authentic African traditions. Swirling lines surround the subjects in a field of visual movement and suggest both the graceful movements of the dancers and the sea grass reeds used by the Gullah to weave baskets.

Go to page 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

This is page 2

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Indiana University Art Museum in Resource Library.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2006 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.