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Nonfiction in Brief

FACING HISTORY by Guy C. McElroy (Bedford Arts/The Corcoran Gallery of Art: $50; 141 pp.)

February 18, 1990|SONJA BOLLE

"Slave or freedman, servant or member of the middle class, minstrel performer or wartime hero, ridiculous stereotype or forceful leader," writes Guy C. McElroy in "Facing History," "the ways that America's leading visual artists have portrayed the African-American . . . form an index that reveals how the majority of American society felt about its black neighbors."

"Facing History," the catalogue to an exhibit now at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., presents works by approximately 80 artists, the vast majority white, who portrayed African-Americans between 1710 and 1940. In his "reading" of the works, McElroy argues that white society's attitudes about the African-American's place can be identified in the artists' work as well as in the reception the artists met in the marketplace.

Many of the works make overtly political statements, like the scene from the New Orleans slave market (reproduced on Page 1 of Book Review), Paul Cadmus' brutal "To the Lynching" or the drawing of fugitive slave Margaret Garner, who, on being apprehended in 1856, tried to kill her children rather than see them returned to slavery. In other works, McElroy makes his argument through an analysis of the style of depiction. He notes, for example, the fine detailing and crude sketching of the respective white and black figures in an 1813 domestic scene by John Lewis Krimmel.

McElroy's text also discusses contemporary controversies. Winslow Homer's "A Visit From the Old Mistress," which portrayed the difficult relationship between former slaves and masters after Emancipation, was attacked on two fronts: by whites for its frank subject and by blacks for the depiction of the former slaves as poor. "There are plenty of well-dressed Negroes if (Homer) would but look for them," one critic noted.

McElroy's overt ideological intent inevitably results in occasional overstatement. But quibbles over the author's scholarly method seem irrelevant next to McElroy's observation about the enduring power of the visual image: "Depictions of black people can no longer rely on gross distortions of physiognomy or character to achieve racially motivated humor, but the symbolic power of visual images remains insidious. Jim Crow, Uncle Tom, Mammy, the Comic Darkey and Zip Coon no longer dominate images of African-Americans in painting and sculpture, but their ghosts live on in a host of popular mediums, most notably in the violence of action serials and the stereotyped behavior of television sitcoms." McElroy intends, by exposing the stereotypes conveyed in visual images, to free people from their power--and thus from the confines of racial prejudice.

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