In a cluster of small galleries on the first floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, American art curator Jessica T. Smith presented a silent exhibit that speaks of grief.
“Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century” consists entirely of works drawn from the museum’s collection, many of which are rarely, if ever, seen.
It’s a dark exhibition, for the most part, which doesn’t mean gloomy – it looks at mourning and grief from many different angles and forces the visitor to see it changing in the inevitable. The finality and violence of death offer transformative metaphors – after armies and thunderous explosions comes silence and absence.
“Elegy” explores the intimacy of grief in a larger social setting and features a number of black artists who clearly understand how loss permeates social and cultural experience.
The genesis of the exhibit, which opened in February and will be on view until July 24, can be found in the museum’s 2018 acquisition of a small painted plaster sculpture by Clarence Lawson, an African-American artist. American working in Chicago for much of the 20th century.
His reward, Emmett Tilla highly stylized, mask-like rendering of Till’s face was made within a few years in the late 1950s, immediately after his infamous murder in Money, Miss., in 1955.
After acquiring the sculpture from Lawson, Smith must have wondered how to present it to the public for the first time.
“It was an emotionally charged, really powerful and important work of art,” she said during a recent stroll through the first-floor galleries. “The question was how to install it. It didn’t seem right to hang the piece on the wall and let people experience it without providing proper context, staging and preparing visitors. So that really started the process of exploring the museum’s collections to look for other works of art that dealt with similar themes or came from similar motivations.
The culling of the museum’s collection resulted in an exhibition of several dozen works, many of them commemorative, many of which serve as memorials, and many of women and artists of color. That said, “Elegy” “doesn’t address the tragic events of the 20th century,” Smith said.
That’s not the goal either.
“There’s no way we can do that. This is not a pageant,” she said. “He really focuses on artists who grapple with the aftermath of specific events or larger themes of grief and loss, which are part of the human experience.”
monumental bronze by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Malcolm X #3 (1969); Bob Thompson’s epic canvas, The Deposition (1961); The Dark by Robert Motherwell Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1958-1961); 1991 by Joyce J. Scott Rodney King Rodney King’s head was crushed like a watermelon (perhaps the most startling beadwork of art in an American museum); and the huge sculptural canvas by Thornton Dial Sr., The last day of Martin Luther King (1992), collectively allude to the connections made by artists between private grief and public mourning, between feelings of loss, commemoration and collective memory.
At the same time, the exhibit presents grief as an intensely solitary experience and even features mourning costumes, such as black veils, robes and even a black Victorian parasol. Death seemed to be in fashion at the end of the 19th century. You are personally overwhelmed with grief, this funeral fashion says, and everyone should know that.
by Lawson Issue up to is something completely different. It’s a plaster piece painted to look like bronze, and it serves as an almost delicate, small, and unassuming memorial – not a realistic rendering, not a monumental statement, not a bugle call.
Emmett Till was 14 and visiting relatives in Mississippi when he went out to the store to buy candy. He was accused of flirting with a white woman at the grocery store, and was then beaten, shot, wrapped in barbed wire, tied to a cotton gin and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.
At her funeral in Chicago – which Lawson, the artist, may have attended – Till’s mother insisted on having a casket opened, to show the world the brutality of the murder. Back in Mississippi, an all-white jury acquitted those charged with her murder. Till’s death was a galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement.
In Lawson’s rendering, Till’s abstract face is calm, the calm center of the vast upheaval his death has inspired. Lawson called the play His reward, Emmett Till, “referring to the book of Matthew which says, ‘Rejoice and be exceedingly happy for great is your reward in heaven,'” Smith said.
Lawson had some success in his life (he died in 1988), but no great reward, she said. His work is little known today.
“Many artists have fought the good fight and done great works,” Smith said. But there was little support for preserving the work of women and artists of color. Black artists largely worked “outside the gallery system” and lacked patronage.
Much of their work, like Lawson’s, disappeared, leaving “not many traces,” she said.
This leads to an important unspoken subtext of “Elegy”: making the invisible visible.
” Shed light on Issue up to, Smith said, encompasses both the “memorial role the artist considered so important and which inspired him to do the work in the first place.”
It also highlights “a sculptor few remember”.
The exhibit was conceived before the pandemic and before the Black Lives Matter movement refocused on the often perilous existence of people of color in America.
“Death is a part of life, it’s a theme that stays with us all the time, but it struck us as particularly resonant” as the pandemic and social upheaval continued, Smith said.
“I mean, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t suffered a loss in the last two years. So I think it took an extra level of personal connection for people.