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Charles White
(1918 - 1979)

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One of the greatest American artists of the twentieth century, Charles White--with amazing spirit, vision, and brilliance--devoted both his life and work to portraying the African American community. With pencil and brush, in black and white or in color, he captured not only the poverty, strife, and despair of the black people but their strength of community, the joy of enlightenment, and the tenderness of kinship as well, rejecting the usual stereotypes of black people as inferior. His canvases, woodcuts, monumental drawings, and murals convey his strong social consciousness and impart the inherent dignity of his subjects.

Charles White was a man driven by a personal philosophy and responsibility that predicates the function of art to ally itself with the 'forces of liberation.' His work reflects his commitment to the struggle against racism, sexism, oppression and subjugation. He has stated that his work has a universality to it which deals 'with love, hope, courage, freedom, dignity, the full gamut of human spirit.'

In the tradition of Francisco Goya, Posada of Mexico, and Rico Lebrun, White chose to be a graphic artist, feeling most comfortable working in black and white. His steadfast belief in his mode of expression has disciplined White to an exceptional extent, releasing a virtuosity and competency that might very well rank him as America's greatest graphic artist. His abilities stem from the faith he has in his people, his pride of their cultural development, and their contributions to legitimizing the ideals upon which this country had been founded. For White art must 'reflect one's commitment to life', and all that it entails. Above all, Charles White believes his work should reflect a 'deep abiding concern for humanity,' and that the work of all artists bears this obligation because the artist works with ideas, which are power, and must be used one way or the other, i.e. to further the struggle for freedom or to neglect it altogether.

As child he became fascinated with drawing and with reading books as a way to escape the trials of everyday life. Early on he read The New Negro by Alain Locke. Here he first became acquainted with Black historical figures and heroes. On two separate occasions, White won scholarships to art schools, both times being told there had been a mistake. The mistake was, of course, that a Negro had been allowed to enter in the first place. Facing this, Charles White became disillusioned with school and became truant. Up until this point he had been an excellent student. This was, however, his good fortune, for he found in art a defense against the attack on his identity and his self-respect. He came to withdraw into his art, and into literature. This period was of tremendous importance for establishing the trail he was eventually to blaze.

Throughout the 1930s, White was constantly involved with artists' groups and their various activities. He spent time at artists' studios learning painting techniques, notably Mitchell Siporin and Edward Millman. These influences helped focus the mission White set for himself, the inklings of which he had felt from early childhood. He redoubled his efforts in high school to make up for missed course-work and graduated in 1936. In May of 1937, he was granted a one-year scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1938, White entered the W.P.A. and began studies for a historical mural housed at the Chicago Public Library. Two years after graduating from the Art Institute, in 1940, White received a commission to paint a mural for the Associated Press depicting the contribution of Negroes to the American press. He received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation in 1941, allowing him and his wife, Elizabeth Catlett, to travel the Deep South, for the first time visiting the region of his forebears. Sketches were made during their stay in anticipation for another mural, The Negro Contribution to Democracy in America. He spent nine months at the Hampton Institute completing the eighteen by sixty foot tempora mural. This sparked a desire to visit Mexico, a center for Social Realism and the graphic arts.

A letter of introduction to David Siqueiros was met with an invitation to stay at his home and to use the top floor, where White and Catlett remained for the duration. While there he met among others, Diego Rivera and Pablo O'Higgins. The Taller de Grafica even made him an honorary member. The direction he was taking with his art was once again affirmed by the work of and interaction with the Mexican artsists, with whom he felt a keen sense of solidarity. Harry Sternberg, who had been his mentor in tempora and fresco techniques before painting the Hampton Mural, had previously instilled a sense of confidence in White's exclusively Black subject matter. This period established his choice of media, the black and white world of graphic art.

After returning to New York, and following his divorce from Catlett, he became actively involved in the New York scene. He lived at the famous 'Sugar Hill', which included such luminary residents as W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, and Duke Ellington. Among his friends in New York were Jacob Lawrence, Jacob Landau and Langston Hughes.

Throughout the 1950s White's thematic focus fell upon the common Black. In the era of McCarthyism, his work took on the task of expressing the dignity of Black folk. Themes of upliftment and transcendence followed in the 1960s and 70s. The pride, love, and abiding faith Charles White had with regard to his people and their half-told history injected his expressive talents with a power to reach deep into the universal language of understanding. In 1965, White accepted a position at the Otis Institute of Art of Los Angeles, returning to one of his great loves, teaching.

 

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Frederick Douglas

 

Late 19th and early 20th century American art with an emphasis on the 1930s since 1977
international fine print dealers association