This is as much a book review as an art exhibit review.
We took in the exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art on July 6, two days before it closed after it had been up since Dec. 9, 2017.
Copies of the coffee-table book published by the museum to go with “Picturing Mississippi 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain and Promise” were still available, so we bought one at half-price.
Some of the images and three-dimensional art and artifacts are in the museum’s permanent collection, but most are not.
Somehow, my procrastination in taking in the show is fitting.
After all, I half-thought, it will be there. Plenty of time.
But time passes into history.
Not these 175 pieces, however, ably accompanied in the book by essays from Jochen Wierich, who penned three section pieces and the preface along with taking the lead in curating the exhibit, Roger Ward, Mimi Miller, LeRonn P. Brooks and Elizabeth Abston.
The art mutely speaks for itself.
That the eyes are windows of the soul is never more true than in this collection.
The imperious eyes of the European conquerers look into yours, but seem blind to humanity.
The deeply sad eyes of slaves pretend not to see but see so much.
The eyes of the native Americans — who have known freedom, only to have it taken from them — have a sharp, distant focus.
The posture of the top-echelon whites — such as Hernando de Soto standing in insouciant attention as he “discovers” the Mississippi in the distance in from what is now Tunica County, while an Indian gestures toward the Father of Waters as if to say: “Do you see?” — speaks for itself in what we now, in our smug egalitarian age, call body language.
De Soto was not looking at the river. He was looking beyond, for the fabled City of Gold, as depicted by Peter Frederich Rothermel in 1843.
On the opposing page of the book is De Soto in a different pose: supine, depicted in “Burial in the Mississippi” (1898) by Edward Moran as the explorer’s body is about to be submerged a year later, in 1542, in the turgid, powerful currents of the very same river after he contracted a fatal fever and his men sought to prevent the “savages” from discovering he was not, after all, divine.
Some of the works are in the museum’s permanent collection, including Webster County native William Dunlap’s modernist masterpiece, “Flat Out Dog Trot” (1998), in which a “trompe-l’oeil hound leaps into the foreground,” as Abston puts it, of a flat landscape weighted down by ominous black clouds.
The dark cloud of race is found throughout the 175-page tome, from the beginning with the native Americans and throughout with African-Americans, first as chattel, then as rebels and often martyrs.
Natchez-born Noah Saterstrom’s “Road to Shubuta” (2016) is a dreamlike allegory of his white family’s journey through a racial landscape.
All within the reaches of the Mississippi have been victims of its periodic floods, as depicted in John Steuart Curry’s “Hoover and the Flood,” with the soon-to-be president as a bystanding Noah as Mississippians celebrate the sun breaking through, perhaps signaling the beginning of the end of the 1927 deluge.
All is not struggle and strife. John James Audubon steps back from his historic visual chronicle of the flora and fauna of the “new world,” and depicts Natchez in 1823 in what is said to be his only extant landscape.
The architecture of this book is balanced by the text-heavy (though illuminating) first half, which forces the images to be unfortunately small, only to have selected ones much larger and standing on their own in the second half, which, after all, is what the eye and the soul seek.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1016.
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