On this day in art history, the American social-realist painter, Hale Aspacio Woodruff was born (August 26, 1900). Woodruff once said, “I believe that every artist whatever his racial or national identity should interpret his life experience and beliefs in his own individual manner.”
Considered a real voice of civil rights, Hale Woodruff was a socially and politically committed artist who “had a high regard and respect for the African artist and his art.” He grew up in Nashville, Tennessee at the turn of the century. The city had just opened the Bijou Theater, one of the South’s leading theaters for African-American audiences. It was also at a time when Hadley Park became the first public park for African-American citizens in the nation.
At a young age, Woodruff began to copy cartoons from the newspaper and images from the bible. According to Hale Woodruff himself, he began as a political cartoonist for the Indianapolis Ledger while he studied at the John Herron Art Institute. There, he met German-born businessman and civic leader, Herman(n) Lieber in 1923. The businessman presented Woodruff with a copy of Carl Einstein’s Afrikanische Plastik, a book of African sculpture that he would cherish throughout his life. The book inspired Woodruff to become one of the first black artists to concentrate in African art.
In 1927, with the sale of his early paintings and funding from a Harmon Foundation award, Hale Woodruff purchased a one-way ticket to Paris. It was the during the Lost Generation-era when many black artists at that time became expatriates so that they could live life without prejudice.
While in Paris, he met Henry O. Tanner, whom he later considered another inspiration. In Paris, Hale Woodruff became part of the “Negro Colony” that included the poet, Claude McKay; the sculptor, Augusta Savage; American civil rights activist, Walter White and the “‘whirlwind’ Josephine Baker, who had arrived from the U.S. with a musical troupe called the ‘Black Birds.’” Woodruff also studied Cubism and produced works such as The Card Players (1928-29).
In 1931, he returned to the United States, and his artistic approach transformed. As the first art instructor at the Atlanta University Center, he gravitated towards social realism and his reputation grew as “one of the most talented African-American artists of the Depression Era.”
No matter the medium, his Georgia landscapes portrayed community wells, tarpaper shanties and outhouses. His interpretations were rendered accurately and tactfully, yet they lacked sentiment. Woodruff and fellow Atlanta artists were coined the “Outhouse School” by the press because the outhouses that dotted the hillsides were depicted in their landscape paintings.
Woodruff was also deeply stirred by the lynchings in the South, and the events inspired him to create a series of block prints, such as By Parties Unknown (1935). These linocut prints were as equally impressive as his watercolors and oils. His figurative style was “bold and muscular.”
Then, in the summer of 1936, Woodruff traveled to Mexico to assist Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Woodruff went on to create what were his best-known and most widely acclaimed works at this time. His Amistad murals at Alabama’s Talladega College and the Trevor Arnett Library in Atlanta were painted between 1938 and 1940. The works were commissioned for the one-hundredth anniversary of the mutiny by African slaves about the slave ship La Amistad in 1849, their ensuing Connecticut trial, and the slave’s return to West Africa following their acquittal.
Woodruff’s murals bear witness to Rivera’s bold influence while retaining the “bold and muscular” figures of his own works from the 1930s. Saturated in color and awash with action, his Mutiny on the Amistad showed battle scenes on the ship’s lurching deck as they tumble over one another in motion with the flow of the waves and the garments. Stephanie Heydt, curator of American art at the High Museum, commented “He presents it in a way that’s uplifting as opposed to aggressive or threatening. He wants people to be inspired by it rather than repelled.”
Woodruff’s research and focus of African cultural concepts became the basis for his future works, including Poor Man’s Cotton (1944) and Afro Emblems (1950). He also began to explore Abstract Expressionism and he shifted his style to what he coined, “semi-abstract,” a technique that he continued to paint for the rest of his life.
Woodruff moved to New York in the late 1940s to teach at New York University, and in 1962, Woodruff along with Romare Bearden became the founding members of the Spiral Group. It was a New York-based collective of African-American artists influenced by Abstract Expressionism whose aim was to reach out into broader circles. The group came together to explore their “common cultural experiences” as black artists and to discuss the civil rights movement.
In 1979, Harlem’s Studio Museum held a 50-year retrospective of the artist-professor’s works. Hale Woodruff (printmaker, draftsman, painter and professor) had a long and distinguished career that took him from the hilly landscapes of Tennessee to Indianapolis and the city of Paris through the Deep South and finally to New York where he died in 1980 at the age of 80.
By Dawn Levesque