The Carl Van Vechten Gallery, named for the prolific 20th-century artist and writer, occupies a Victorian brick structure on the grounds of Fisk University in Nashville’s inner city, and currently sits empty. Renovated, whitewashed, and begging for an installation, the gallery awaits its long-planned reopening, set to open later this month. During my recent visit, a staff member told me that Georgia O’Keeffe designed the gallery and curated its inaugural exhibition—the first public presentation of the 101-piece Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, bequeathed by O’Keeffe to Fisk in 1949 in honor of her photographer husband. These names, hallowed in every 20th-century American art book, are, honestly, what originally drew me to Fisk. I sold mass-produced prints of O’Keeffe’s flowers at my first “real” job in the museum store at the Arkansas Arts Center in 2007, and in 2009 I sat in on the lectures of Stieglitz scholar Katherine Hoffman, the University of Memphis’s visiting chair in art history. With the flawless pedigree of the quintessential American artists behind the gallery’s establishment, it’s easy to overlook larger themes at work—past, present, and future—on Fisk’s campus.
I’m embarrassed to say that I was only vaguely familiar with Fisk’s incredible story when I moved to Nashville last year. Trying to grasp the highlights of a new city’s arts and culture as quickly as possible, I found myself on the “wow” end of a Google search. My first art-related adventure in Nashville transpired at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in the heart of downtown (the non-Vegas strip end of Lower Broadway), an incredible exhibition and education space housed in the former Art Deco-style main post office. Unlike traditional art museums, the Frist, in fact, does not have a permanent collection, and its rotating exhibition schedule offers new art every six to eight weeks. The impermanence of the Frist’s exhibitions is what makes it so special; every viewing presents a limited-time offer, which inherently increases the value of the visitor experience.
Then, there’s the Parthenon in Centennial Park. This 1920s behemoth is a to-scale replica of the famed ancient Greek temple and—oh, by the way—home to the James M. Cowan collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art. Let’s be honest: it’s difficult to market a small, 63-piece collection, albeit including works by greats such as West, Church, and Homer, when they’re under the auspices of a 225-feet-long, 100-feet-wide, and 34-feet-high concrete spectacle. An odd combination, to say the least. Quietly mentioned here and there but nowhere really touted for its ownership of the Cowan collection, the Parthenon goes by the self-title, “city of Nashville’s art museum,” in my opinion, namely because it’s operated by the Metro Nashville government and not necessarily because it owns a small but mighty art collection. I actually love the Parthenon. It’s majestic in every way. Lit up at night, its dramatic silhouette sometimes gives me goose bumps. I imagine how impressive the original, intact temple must have been, and I think, Well done, Nashville.
Inherently tied to Nashville by either geography or heritage, the Frist Center and the Parthenon both have a place in our city. On a quest for even deeper roots, I found history and a transcendental authenticity of place-making beyond expectation.
Since 1866, Fisk has been a historically black university and is the earliest-founded school of higher learning in Nashville—no small task in a predominantly white, Southern city that’s also the home of conservative former President Andrew Jackson. This tie to the African-American population is undoubtedly what attracted O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, and Van Vechten, powerful advocates of the Harlem Renaissance, to the university. That, and Aaron Douglas. Declared the “father of Black American art” by his contemporary and collaborator Alain Locke, Douglas was hired by Fisk in the 1930s as an art professor following the success of his book illustrations and cover designs for controversial publications such as Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven and James Weldon Johnson’s epic poem God’s Trombone, both published in the 1920s. For such a badass, Douglas was seemingly unaffected; a Fisk staff member endearingly recited the story of a precious Zora Neale Hurston portrait in pastels found in his studio after his death, rumpled and stuffed behind some books on a shelf—a masterpiece almost lost.
Today, the Picassos, Cézannes, and Renoirs of the Stieglitz Collection, once permanent fixtures of the Van Vechten Gallery, are now co-owned with the Alice Walton-built Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The arrangement is the result of a high-profile legal dispute with the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which challenged Fisk’s original intention to sell the collection. The reason the Van Vechten Gallery sits empty is, ironically, the very reason I explored another subject area of the university’s permanent collection—that of African-American art. An unexpected blessing, for sure. Below are a few portraits that stood out to me as special, in particular for their representation of the rich depth and history of female imagery in Fisk’s collection, connecting past traditional visual devices and the present elevation of woman’s status.
Winold Reiss, for example, was a German immigrant living and working in the 1920s on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and is easily spotted in Fisk’s collection by his mastery of black skin. Socially connected, Reiss also kept a popular studio in New York City at this time, which is where he met his pupil Aaron Douglas. Reiss’s 1925 portrait of Zora Neale Hurston shows the literary icon in profile, eyes averted not in submission, as in many Renaissance-era portraits, but rather in a contemplative, untouchable-ness.
Similarly, Reiss’s Father and Two Children, St. Helena depicts three figures much in the style of another Renaissance classic, Giotto’s gilded Virgin and Child scenes, but with reversed gender roles. Here, the father looks down in resolve, while the two young daughters boldly face the viewer head-on and with eye contact. Surely the gilded background of Reiss’s portrait holds the same symbolic reverence of Giotto’s Christian halo-effect.
Aaron Douglas’s portrait of his wife, Alta Sawyer, is very typical of his portraiture style in the 1930s and highly influenced by Reiss’s encouragement to draw from what Douglas already knew for subject matter, which included his African-American heritage and his personal relationships. Known to be a firecracker of a woman, Sawyer was a muse and inspiration to Douglas in many ways over the course of their highly documented courtship and marriage lasting from the early 1920s to her death in 1958. Hundreds of letters between the two, in fact, were published by the Aaron and Alta Sawyer Douglas Foundation in 2009. According to Abraham Smith in his 2001 essay “Aaron Douglas, the Harlem Renaissance, and Biblical Art: Towards a Radical Politics of Identity,” published in African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Structures, Douglas often integrated biblical imagery into his illustrations and spoke in biblical language, sometimes referring to Sawyer as his “Queen of Sheba.” The exotic print of Sawyer’s garments and the lush landscape in the background could easily be read in an allegorical context, much in the same vein as, say, a Sir Joshua Reynolds or Sir Anthony van Dyck.
I would be remiss to forget another key figure of the Harlem Renaissance represented in the Fisk collection: Malvin Grey Johnson, a pupil of Douglas. His The Letter depicts an African-American woman in a fuchsia dress, writing a letter, at what appears to be a dining table. The appearance of literature, books, and writing has a long history in European art to connote scholarship, wealth, and status in the community. Here, however, the humble interior setting and the casualness of the woman’s air implies somewhat of a hardship—no bells and whistles, just real life.
When the Stieglitz Collection returns to the Van Vechten Gallery in 2016, it will undoubtedly return to a celebratory homecoming. And appropriately so. It’s an incredible art collection, bequeathed by incredible artists to an incredible space. But to me, the Fisk permanent collection is where it’s at. I didn’t sell Douglas prints in my retail days or study him as part of a class in school, but, today, I am moved by his life’s work. A city’s artistic heritage doesn’t have to be tracked merely by the passion of a single collector or by the value a name may bring at auction, but by the social change its art reflects and manifests; by the legacy of mentorship passed down through generations of artists living and working for the same purpose; and by the physical occupancy of the city itself.
Elaine Slayton Akin is an arts writer and nonprofit professional in Nashville. She is currently the development coordinator at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Last year, Akin relocated to Nashville from Little Rock, Arkansas, where she worked as the communications manager at the Thea Foundation and was a board member for Number magazine.