Monday, December 20, 2010

Paul Robeson

I have written in this blog in previous posts that life is long and can take many twists and turns.  Some people go through life, raise a family, work in service sector jobs which seemingly contribute very little to humanity as a whole....  on the other hand I read the biography of John Addams who was a gentleman farmer in Massachusetts and a lawyer who became one of Americas founding fathers, was one of the architects of its independence... traveled back and forth to Europe as one of Americas ambassadors, returned to become its President, lived long enough to see his son reach the same office....   Reading that made my life feel it was at a standstill by comparison.  

I have come to believe that history pulls some people into situations that make them larger than life, such is the case of Paul Robeson (a thumbnail bio is at the bottom of this post)  Robeson too is a man who's life has bisected so many things, Sports, Theater, Politics, Human Rights, Labor... I cannot think of a contemporary that has been involved in so many significant moments in their life time! 
I was a bit struck then when I found an artful nude image of Paul Robeson in the the book The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire by Deborah Bright.  The image was as I found out later an entire series of images by Nickolas Murray a Olympic Athlete and photographer who had a studio in Greenwich Village during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance.  He earned some degree of fame photographing for Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New York Times as well as a well documented relationship with Frida Kahlo.   

To quote Corey Jarrell's blog post  Paul Robeson: Naked, Lost and Found - "In 1925, slightly before Robeson became all things to all people, he was dealing with the effects of a strict religious upbringing imposed by his minister father, and although he lived in Harlem, the strict social mores imposed by his bourgeois wife Essie, and the collective dogma of the Talented Tenth.  Looking for a taste of freedom, It seems fitting that Paul would find a new flavor nearby in the Village, where they were not always worried about such things.    Amongst the sexually liberated bohemians and other artists, many of whom were gay and lesbian, he was free to be.  There, he didn't worry about being perfect, but it wasn't about scandal.  It was about timing and the atmosphere, the lust and the art.  Like everyone else, Nickolas Murray saw Paul Robeson and fell in  love with his magnificence.  

Some contemporary (black) critics of the 1926 photographs  seem to suggest Robeson was an unwitting pawn, held captive by the "primitive" lens of the photographer, his body objectified and his achievements ignored."

What I find intriguing about the whole event was the absence of an overt homosexual sub context that were in many of Murray's contemporaries images like those of photographer Carl Van Vechten.
While I understand the possible case for Murray's  motivation to photograph blacks as primitives, but I cant help but look at these images as something possibly different.  These are images that do not seem to fit the same profile as Van Vechtens' who used tribal spears and knives.  The images also do not seem to convey an overt sexuality in pose or dwelled on genitalia, indeed they seem more classical in nature.  

I find them compelling and comparable to my work and to that of my contemporaries and as such I feel a connection to them.  I suspect that Robeson may have seen this as liberating in some way, in fact he also worked with sculptor Antonio Salemme to complete a nude sculpture as well.  

Again from Corey's blog  "In 1924, Salemme been told about a "magnificent man" appearing onstage as The Emperor Jones.  More than an actor, he saw an awesome body "beautifully formed and glistening with sweat."  He approached Paul Robeson backstage and told him he wanted to sculpt a life-size, seven foot tall nude statue of him.  Paul eyed him and they both grinned like adolescent schoolboys.  He went home with Salemme and posed for the first time that very night.  It was his first time among the radicals, the avant-garde, the renegades, anarchists and libertarians.  He fit right in!  He would pose after performances sometimes up to three hours.  The artist and his subject became very close with Salemme taking Paul to museums and art exhibits, and Paul taking the artist uptown to Harlem.  The in-crowd flocked to the studio to watch the naked progression."   Unlike Paul Robeson the finished sculpture unfortunately has been lost to time

Paul Leroy Robeson (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American bass-baritone concert singer, recording artist, athlete and actor who became noted for his political radicalism and pioneering activism in both the human rights and civil rights movements. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson was the first major concert star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals and was the first black actor of the 20th century to portray Shakespeare's Othello on Broadway.
Described as the "greatest football player of his era", Robeson was an All-American athlete, Phi Beta Kappa Society laureate during his years at Rutgers University. In 1923, Robeson drifted into amateur theater work and within a decade he had become a world famous star of stage, screen, radio and film. Robeson would go on to be a recipient of the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, the Stalin Peace Prize and of honorary memberships in over half a dozen trade unions. Robeson's lead roles in both the US and British film industries were the first to display dignity for blacks, paving the way for Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Though one of the most internationally famous people of the 20th century, persecution by the U.S. government and blacklisting by the media due to his vocal support of civil rights, Communist countries and the decolonization of Africa during the Cold War, has largely kept Paul Robeson out of mainstream interpretations of history including Black history.
At the height of his career, Paul Robeson chose to become a political artist. In 1950, Robeson's passport was revoked under the McCarran Act over his work in the Anti-imperialism movement and what the U.S. State department called Robeson's "frequent criticism while abroad of the treatment of blacks in the US."Under heavy and daily surveillance by both the FBI and the CIA and publicly condemned for his beliefs by both the United States Congress and mainstream black organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Robeson was denied the opportunity to work as an entertainer in the US and abroad.
Robeson's right to travel was restored in 1958 and his already faltering health broke down under controversial circumstances during a visit to Moscow in 1963. By 1965, he was forced into permanent retirement. He would spend his final years in seclusion living with family, remaining unapologetic about his political views and career. Present day advocates and historians of Paul Robeson's legacy have worked successfully to restore his name to numerous history books and sports records, while honoring his memory globally with posthumous events and recognitions.
To read more of the history behind the images and sculpture please go to Corey @ I'll Keep You Posted....  

Note: All images and text (not specified) is copyrighted by Christopher Cushman. This site does not specify or denote the sexual orientation of any model and as such please post your comments accordingly.

1 comment:

Aritul said...

Work of art without seeking to inspire any feelings of lust or the like.