Studies for Lost Mural Possess “Enormous Power and Beauty” at Yale Show

Study for the mural "The Incident" (Courtesy of Gallery, Grinnell College Art Collection, Estate of Clinton A. Rehling, class of 1939)


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Reckoning with “The Incident”: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural at Yale University Art Gallery, is an exhibition without its subject centerpiece.

In lieu of the painting, Yale presents an assemblage of preparatory works and related paintings and prints – studies possessing enormous power and beauty — around a black and white photographic re-creation of the mural. Some of the pieces are owned by Yale, and many are in the collection of the Grinnell College Museum of Art.

The son of immigrants from British Guiana, John Woodrow Wilson was born in Massachusetts in 1922. Through his father’s subscription to progressive black newspapers, Wilson read about and saw photographs of American lynchings, images that stayed with him from his childhood.

Lithograph (Courtesy of the Everett V. Meeks, B.A. 1901, Fund)

Wilson graduated in 1945 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and from Tufts University two years later. A traveling fellowship allowed him to study with Fernand Leger in Paris. And in 1950 he was awarded a second fellowship and, inspired by the social content of Jose Clemente Orozco’s work, he traveled to Mexico to study mural painting. Wilson attended several institutions, established a community of African American expatriate artists, and stayed in Mexico for six years.

He painted The Incident while studying at La Esmeralda, the national school of art in Mexico City, in 1952. At the time, student murals typically enjoyed a life span of a few weeks before they were painted over, but muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros saw the painting and intervened on its behalf. Eventually, the mural was destroyed, but photographs were taken, and Wilson’s preliminary works were preserved.

What we know from the assembled studies is that the composition was bisected by a window frame. To the left is an interior, the foreground inhabited by a woman clutching her baby while her husband stands over her. With grim expression, he grasps a shotgun and watches the tragedy outside. The crumpled and disfigured body of a young black man is lowered from a tree branch by a quartet of robed Klansmen.

Study for the mural “The Incident” (Courtesy of Everett V. Meeks, B.A. 1901, Fund)

Wilson had attempted a ‘split screen’ on the subject of racial inequity before. As a student in Boston almost a decade earlier, he created a lithograph titled Deliver Us From Evil, which juxtaposed Jewish victims of concentration camps with the persecution of black Americans. The print is filled with multiple tableaux and dozens of figures.

In the mural, the elements are pared to a single narrative, a family reacting to a lynching. Wilson chose a story that tapped the reservoir of childhood memories. The Incident, he said, was painted to ‘exorcise’ those memories. The powerlessness Wilson would have felt as a boy was perhaps partly resolved by his creation of a resolute witness, armed with a gun.  According to Elisabeth Hodermarsky, Yale’s Sutphin Family Curator of Prints and Drawings, “This mural would never have been able to be made in this country in 1952, especially by a black man.”

This is art, not documentary, but it is a subject rarely, if ever, attempted on such a large scale in this country. It is a tragedy that Wilson had to leave the United States and adopt a foreign style to paint The Incident—“And so, through Mexican art,” he explained, “I began to experience a sense of how to depict my reality”—but it’s to the benefit of American art that he did so.

Study for the mural “The Incident” (Courtesy of Gallery, Grinnell College Art Collection, Estate of Clinton A. Rehling, class of 1939)

Yale has posted advisories regarding the exhibition’s content at both entrances to the gallery. To a public presumably familiar with the graphic substance of photographs and movies, the mural is likely to read as allegory, its stylization somewhat mitigating the narrative’s visceral impact.

Wilson’s preparatory works were of two types. There are several compositional studies that indicate the colors he would use in the mural. The artist adhered closely to these small paintings in the design of the final product, so it’s a safe bet that he stuck with the colors as well. In every version, details remain consistent, including the serpentine bullwhip and the banal shapes of the assailants’ hoods. For Wilson, the most intriguing aspect was the characterization of the woman, which he continued to tweak in a series of works after he completed The Incident.

A second type of preparatory study is more amply represented. Using crayon, ink, charcoal and graphite, Wilson made drawings of isolated parts of the figures. The hands and feet of the martyred man and the arms of the woman are drawn with the most profound sensitivity to their elegant forms—it must have pained Wilson to modify a splendid life study of a foot into the distorted limb seen in the mural. A portrait of his wife, Julie, retains tenderness despite its dramatic lighting. Quite apart from the practical purpose they served, the life studies are the work of a gifted draftsman. Something was lost when these observations were translated into the visual mannerisms of the fresco. Yet something was also gained.

Study for the mural “The Incident” (Courtesy of the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund)

The fragments gathered for this intimate show provide a window into Wilson’s working process. They also call for a broader project, a retrospective of his life’s work. When Wilson returned to the United States, he taught in New York City, then settled in Boston in 1964, where he began a teaching career at Boston University. All the while, he created paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture that referred to racial and sociopolitical themes. Wilson’s most famous work is a sculpted portrait bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., completed in 1986, that resides in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

Reckoning with “The Incident”: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural, is at Yale University Art Gallery until May 10. It was previously shown at Grinnell College, Iowa; David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland, College Park; and Clark Atlanta University Art Museum.