Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) is seen by many critics as the greatest African-American figure painter of the 20th century. Patricia Hills concurs. The College of Arts and Sciences art history professor is enthralled with his use of bright colors and rich patterns — and at the same time has long been intrigued by the many mask motifs in his works.
On January 31, Hills discussed Lawrence’s 1950s “performance” paintings — which feature masked subjects — in the inaugural lecture of the CAS Senior Research Fellowship Lecture Series. Hills is one of five recipients of the first Research Fellowship Awards, presented by the Humanities Foundation at BU for the 2005–2006 academic year. The four other award recipients will talk about their research on select Wednesdays throughout the spring semester. The next lecture, Archaeological Biographies of Early Bostonians, by Mary Beaudry, a CAS archaeology professor, is on February 21.
Hills says the fellowship enabled her to take a yearlong sabbatical to delve into Lawrence’s paintings featuring figures wearing masks or with mask-like faces. His well-known 1951 painting Vaudeville, for example, depicts two frowning African-American comedians. Hills says that many other American figurative painters in the post–World War II and Cold War eras used such motifs because they were distressed by the ravages of war and the repression of intellectual freedom during McCarthyism. “They wanted to express their unease about world tensions,” she says.
But she found that Lawrence’s mask paintings also hold another message. “Drawing on African-American vernacular traditions, Lawrence presents masks as a motif for ‘masking’ — a cultural strategy for African-Americans during the 1940s and 1950s for coping with racism and Jim Crow segregation,” Hills says. Informed by both the cultural practices and the historical movement in which Lawrence lived, Hills’ lecture explored his “performance” paintings and what she called the “double consciousness” at the core of his art.
Humanities Foundation president Katherine O’Connor, a CAS professor of modern foreign languages and literatures, says the fellowships allow researchers, who would normally have to apply for sabbaticals every seven years, to “make a sizable dent in their research projects — especially the professors who aren’t eligible for a sabbatical for quite some time and who are in the middle of a project.” Hills was able to begin writing her book on Lawrence for the University of California Press. On April 11, Anita Patterson, a CAS associate professor of English, will lecture on T. S. Eliot, St. John Perse, and the Whitmanian Poetics of the Frontière, which is drawn from a chapter in her book Race, American Literature, and Transnational Modernisms. She finished the manuscript during her fellowship, and the book will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press.
“There are precious few outside funding opportunities for professors in the humanities,” says O’Connor. The lecture series, she adds, is a perfect way to inform the BU community of the latest developments of the fellowship recipients’ work.
On May 9, CAS English Professor John Paul Riquelme will talk about Modernist Authenticity: Wilde/Magritte/Beckett, which concerns the persistence of authenticity in the literature and art of the 20th century, starting with Oscar Wilde, who Riquelme calls “a 19th-century precursor of what eventually comes to be called ‘literary modernism.’”
Below is a schedule of the remaining talks in the Senior Research Fellowship Lecture Series. All lectures, which begin at 4 p.m. in CAS Room 132, are free and open to the public.
February 21: Mary Beaudry
Archaeological Biographies of Early Bostonians
February 28: James Iffland
Assessing the Legacy of Roque Dalton: Pitfalls and Pathways
April 11: Anita Patterson
T .S. Eliot, St. John Perse and the Whitmanian Poetics of the Frontière
May 9: John Paul Riquelme
Modernist Authenticity: Wilde/Magritte/Beckett