Books: September-October 2009

Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture
By Richard J. PowellCutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture

By Richard J. Powell.
University of Chicago Press, 2009. 276 pages. 
116 illus-trations in color and black and white. $55

In his provocative new contribution to postmodern art scholarship, art historian Richard Powell unpacks, decodes, and eruditely riffs on the iconography of the black figure in American art. Portraits of black subjects constitute a special category within portraiture, Powell argues, due to the historical impact that slavery, racism, and their legacies have had on both the portrayers and the portrayed. His primary focus, and the reference point for the book's title, is the assertive participation by black subjects in their own portrayals. Citing literary references to the phrase "cutting a figure" from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, he notes that in such contexts it refers to individuals who call special attention to themselves by showing off, mugging for the camera, striking confident poses, and/or wearing flashy or ostentatious clothing. Powell, Duke's John Spencer Bassett Professor of art and art history, assesses more than 100 images of black men and women, tracking the proud trajectory of such assertive figures across roughly 200 years of American art history.

His first chapter considers the ways in which the black men and women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrate self-awareness and self-agency. Analyzing the iconography in images of runaway slaves, a black servants' ball, stoic black women, dandified black men, and self-possessed black leaders, Powell brings his deep knowledge of African-American art to a thoughtful analysis of these figures as "conveyers of the aspirations, desires, and fantasies of their times."

Taking a historical leap to the 1960s, Powell looks at the career of Donyale Luna (1946-1979),a tall, beautiful African-American woman who enjoyed rapid success as a fashion model beginning in 1965, then pursued a sporadic, idiosyncratic acting career. After moving to Italy in 1969, she developed a serious drug habit that killed her by the end of the 1970s. Powell's erudite commentary on her roller-coaster career reveals her as an audaciously individualistic groundbreaker who enabled the emergence of other fiercely glamorous black women models and performers.

The book's other "cultural benchmark" figure is the contemporary African-American painter Barkley L. Hendricks, whose retrospective exhibition, "Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool," debuted at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art in 2008. Born in 1945, he began making his creative mark at the end of the 1960s and, in the decade that followed, developed a singular body of portraiture finely tuned to the prevailing black cultural styles of the 1970s. Offering a strong counterpoint to all-too-familiar mass-media images in which black people are "reduced to fixed, immovable images of poverty, danger, and negativity," Hendricks' subjects are sophisticated, young African-American hipsters and intellectuals, and his presentation of them emphasizes their stylish clothes and self-possessed demeanors. Powell argues persuasively for the centrality of Hendricks' work to current discourse about postmodernism, identity construction, and portraiture's unsettled status in the contemporary art world.

The book's final chapter surveys "The New Black Portraiture," highlighting images of black subjects from the late twentieth century that subvert traditional portraiture and address issues of social identity. For pioneering this trend, Powell credits French graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude, whose fragmented, taped-together collage portrait of Jamaican model and vocalist Grace Jones, from 1978, is the book's cover image. This last chapter also gives critical consideration to television, hip-hop music videos, and celebrity-centered professional sports. Powell derides the cynical value system and stereotypic role models promoted in "gangsta" rap lyrics and videos, which he views as evidence of the increasingly pessimistic viewpoints adopted by many young African Americans in the post-civil rights era.

But he praises hip-hop's promotion of exuberance and freedom, and credits the genre for showing the rest of the world what it looks like "through the prism of blackness." Powell comments on the ubiquity of black figures in the media since 1980 and the ways in which they're now routinely employed to sell consumer products. He also questions black portraiture's status in an emerging world of "racial idiosyncrasy" in which fixed group identity is increasingly irrelevant.

Indeed, the phenomenon identified and discussed in this critically astute, culturally illuminating volume not only continues but seems to have expanded exponentially. It's easy to think of other pertinent examples, especially when the field of available imagery is extended into the immediate present. Perhaps the most obvious is Shepard Fairey's boldly graphic image of Barack Obama's uplifted, forward-looking face on the iconic "HOPE" campaign poster. Cutting a Figure provides a highly useful, sharply focused, new lens through which to assess such imagery.

Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back

Few of the books I've read in recent years could be called "delicious," but Ardent Spirits is one of them. Reynolds Price has put before us a box of chocolates in the form of a memoir, a rich confection of anecdotes and portraits from memory, with many photographs layered into the text by way of illustration. In this third volume of memoirs, the author recalls six crucial years in early manhood, taking up the story of his life from the time of his departure for Britain from North Carolina in 1955 (he was a recent summa cum laude graduate of Duke). In the central chapters, he tells us about Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, and his various travels in Italy and elsewhere. In the end, he remembers his first years of teaching at Duke—a luminous picture of academic life in a bygone era, when women and men met in single-sex classrooms during their first year. He also returns to England, a more mature man and artist, in a kind of coda to the main book.

Price's evocation of Oxford in the mid-1950s is deeply nostalgic. The Yank at Oxford theme is a familiar one, almost a genre in itself (think of the 1938 film by that title, starring Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Maureen O'Sullivan). For Anglophiles like myself, with an Oxford connection—I was once a fellow of Christ Church—the setting alone has an intrinsic charm, and Price never fails to land on just the right detail, as when he summons a crowded High Street populated with "plump red-cheeked housewives with even plumper babies in old-fashioned wicker carriages."

There is a good deal of humor throughout, as Price observes British academic life with wry detachment. He remembers fondly the young men dressed in neckties, with wool jackets, most of them broadcasting "the distinct odor of infrequent baths." In this vein, he reports on a meeting where Oxford dons met to discuss the installation of showers for students. One elderly don lurched to his feet to object, noting that the students were only at college for a couple of months at a time. Why would they ever need to bathe?

Being a novelist of considerable skill and practice, Price knows how to sketch a character in bold strokes. He does so with a roster of famous academic and literary names, summoning the ghosts of Lord David Cecil, Neville Coghill, Dame Helen Gardner, Stephen Spender, and W.H. Auden—to cite just a few of the more luminous names. The picture of Auden—at various stages of decay—is especially vivid. "Auden was drowning in a tumbler of gin" when they first met, Price recalls. The great poet was in his room at Christ Church, his undergraduate college, where he had recently returned amid controversy as professor of poetry. Decades of chain-smoking had left his face "creased and gullied," as Price puts it. He was interested to learn of Auden's attachment to Chester Kallman, a younger American. They were, Price notes, the first openly "queer" couple he had seen in public, and this made a lasting impression.

Price describes his own homoerotic attachments with a kind of decorous detachment. One meets the various friends who stir his affections, and it's touching to think of him discussing gay life with his avidly heterosexual tutor, David Cecil. Price tells us, "With me from the start, David Cecil discussed homosexuality and gave no suggestion whatsoever of disapproval or condemnation." The relationships described here seem remarkably Platonic. Only one friendship, with an older man called Matyas, blossomed sexually; this happened during his last months in England. The romance was passionate and deeply satisfying, if sadly brief.

Matyas (we never learn his last name) was a friend of the actor John Gielgud, and Price was taken to lunch with the great man in London, in his "narrow house on Cowley Street just behind Westminster Abbey." One reads, somewhat open-mouthed, as Price recalls a flowing stream of encounters with the great and the good from a wide spectrum of British intellectual and artistic life. These pages perhaps fall into the category of Higher Gossip, but they make for wonderful reading.

With Price, we travel to Rome and Florence, to various sites in Britain, to the London houses of a wide range of characters. Along the way, we learn about the author's discovery of his own literary gifts, which proved substantial. He listened keenly as the writers and critics he met talked about their craft. His eyes fastened on the telling details, as any writer familiar with his stories and novels would expect.

In all, Ardent Spirits recounts the growth of one writer's mind, recalling in artful prose what he saw and felt. It explores how these experiences transformed him from an innocent if highly intelligent youth who leaves the New World with a good deal of hope, moves through some of the richest (and occasionally tortuous) passages of the Old World, and returns to his native state of North Carolina as a young professor at Duke, a man at last—one who would inspire students for over half a century and delight countless readers with his marvelous parade of novels, stories, poems, plays, memoirs, and translations.


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