Monday, May 20, 2019

AUGUSTA SAVAGE: Renaissance Woman Review By Polly Guerin

Augusta Savage with "Realization"
"/There is form and color, and rhythm in the work, but most of all , there is Augusta Savage in every bit of it." --- New York Telegram, April 1932.  
     When it comes to success in life, "Timing is Everything," and such was the case with Augusta Savage (1892-1962). Being Black, being a woman and being an artist are challenges that Augusta encountered, yet she overcame poverty, racism, and sexual discrimination to become an instrumental artist, educator and community organizer during the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and cultural movement during the 1920s and 1930s in which cultural work was produced by Black artists about the Black lived experience. Yet, her work is largely unknown today. 
       To remind us not to forget. this remarkable woman's oeuvre is worthy of new found recognition but she was also the driving force behind the artistic education of  several notable artists in Harlem, including Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, William Artis and Norman Lewis. Image: Augusta Savage with her sculpture "Realization," 1938 Gelatin Silver Print, 10 x 8 in. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, Photographs and Print Division, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 86-0036. Not much has been written or recorded about her 1938 sculpture "Realization" but one can sense both shame and fear in a sorrowful monument that symbolizes the pained bewilderment of the persecuted Negro peon.
      The New York Historical Society presents: AUGUSTA SAVAGE, RENAISSANCE WOMAN through July 29, 2019, "This landmark exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to understand and appreciate the artistic greatness of Ms. Savage's Legacy, as well as the many challenges she
faced as a woman and an African American," said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society.  
     Augusta's commitment to using art to empower an oppressed is at the heart of the exhibition, which features more than 50 works of art and archival materials that explore Savage's legacy
through her own sculptures as well as the work of emerging artists she inspired.
Boy with Rabbit, 1928
As a child, Augusta was so inspired to create art that she used the rich clay deposits in Green Cove Springs, Florida, where she was born in 1892,  to sculpt animal figurines. When her father, a minister, discovered her work, he beat her severely for what he thought "graven images." Alas, her father could not "beat" the art out of her and neither could our imperfect world and society.  

Image: Boy with Rabbit, 1928 reflects the innocence of childhood, a nude boy tenderly feeds apples to a rabbit eagerly standing on its hind legs next to him. This subject demonstrates Savage's ability to sculpt the body and animals into a comprehensive composition evoking innocence and perhaps referencing Savage's childhood in Florida.                 
        Augusta moved to Harlem to study art in 1921 and graduated from The Cooper Union School of Art, where she completed a four-year program in three years. Despite having a prominent scholarship to the Fontainebleau School of Arts in Paris rescinded due to her race---the selection committee declared "it would not be wise to have a colored student," Savage studied elsewhere in Paris  from 1929-31 to further her practice. When she returned to New York, she established her own studio in Harlem to offer free art classes to children and adults.  
      Savage was one of 12 women artists commissioned for the 1939 World's Fair in New York and the only African American woman selected to participate.  She created LIFT EVERY VOICE AND
SING (1939) for the occasion---a 16 foot-tall sculpture of Black youth in the form of a Harp, inspired by the hymn "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," also known as the Black National Anthem. Unfortunately, Savage lacked both the funds to cast the work in bronze and the space to store it, so like many artworks at the World's Fair, it was destroyed when the event ended. Lift Every Voice and Sings exists only in the form of souvenir replicas, like the version on display in the gallery.  Its exhibition marks the 89th anniversary of the New York World's Fair.
     Savage fought to create opportunities for many Harlem artists and became an inspiration  for the community centers nationwide. In Savage's own words, "I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work."  On view in the exhibition are works by Knight and Lawrence as well as Romare Bearden and William Artis.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
     Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, a companion catalogue, published by London-based firm D.Giles Unlimited further explores Augusta Savage's impact and legacy. The book is available in the NYHistory Store and from online retailers. The exhibition was curated by Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.d and organized by the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens with support from the National Endowment for the arts and the Sotheby's Prize.
       Ta Ta Darlings!!!  What talent, what perseverance, what a awesome, benevolent artist/sculptor---Augusta Savage nurtured and enabled so many talented Black youth to fulfill their dream. Fan mail welcome at Visit Polly's Blogs at and click on the links in the left-hand column to women determined to succeed, visionary men, fashion historian and poetry.

1 comment:

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