This show comes to the New-York Historical Society by way of the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, not far from where Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was born, in Green Cove Springs in the Jim Crow South. The Florida native battled poverty and race and gender discrimination to become a revered sculptor, teacher and community organizer, nurturing the likes of Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and Gwendolyn Knight along the way.
“She is not known today, but she was one of the great movers and shakers of the art world in her time,” associate curator Wendy Ikemoto, who coordinated the show at the Society, said on a tour.
Savage worked tirelessly to raise the profile of African-American artists, male and female. The exhibit is comprised of more than 75 items — sculptures, paintings, photographs and archival material — that showcase her talent and that of the masters who flocked to her Harlem studio during the “Negro Renaissance.” It was a period of cultural and artistic flowering in the 1920s and 1930s when “work was produced by Black artists about the Black lived experience,” exhibit curator Jeffreen Hayes writes in the catalog.
Artist, Activist and TeacherSavage’s gift was apparent at a young age, when she sculpted ducks out of the red clay in her backyard in Green Cove Springs. She made her way to New York in 1921 and enrolled in the tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art, completing a four-year program early. Her efforts were rewarded with a summer scholarship to the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France — an honor that was famously rescinded when a committee of white American men learned that she was black.
Correspondence by W.E.B. Du Bois and others regarding the decision is on view. A 1923 letter documents that the committee felt “... it would not be wise to have a colored student ... disagreeable complications would arise…”
Ikemoto said: “Savage alerted the press and engaged directly with the media and made headlines. This was a black woman speaking out in the Jim Crow era. She was catapulted onto the national stage.” The incident was transformative, motivating Augusta to become a “race woman,” a dedicated activist on behalf of the black community.
A dearth of portrait commissions during the Depression led her to pivot to teaching. In 1932, her Harlem studio became the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, offering free art education to the public. She later founded the Harlem Community Art Center at the invitation of the WPA’s Federal Art Project. Note her photograph with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the center’s opening in 1937, the ultimate validation.
A Commitment to Racial UpliftWorks by Savage’s students and associates — Lawrence, Knight, Lewis, Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, William Artis — are exhibited in tandem with those of the artist herself, in part because so many of Savage’s sculptures no longer exist. One reason why? She didn’t have the funds to cast many in bronze, so most of her production was left in plaster, a fragile material.
Ikemoto commented on the stylistic differences between Savage and her pupils: “That speaks to generational differences, but it also says something about Savage’s own teaching philosophy. This was somebody who wasn’t trying to dictate a style to her students. She was trying to communicate a commitment to racial uplift, a commitment to self-definition.”
“The Diving Boy” (ca. 1939), a realistic and very tender work, was chosen to open the show here because it is one of the few pieces that the sculptor cast in bronze. It was featured in 1939 at the opening of her own gallery, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, the first art gallery founded by a black woman. It closed after only three months.
Said Ikemoto: “Savage understood the need for an infrastructure for black artists to work. She said that in her whole life, in all the African-American homes she visited, only two contained works by African-American artists: so how is the African-American artist to survive? She really tried to build that infrastructure.”
A Masterpiece Destroyed“Gamin” (ca. 1930; street urchin in French), a presumed likeness of Savage’s nephew, is one of her best-known works. It’s a small, classical-style bust that was lauded for its sensitive portrayal of an African-American boy, countering demeaning stereotypes of black youth. The child’s shirt and cap are wrinkled though “you also see a resilient figure, someone who is thoughtful, someone who is grounded despite his impoverished circumstances,” Ikemoto said.
But Savage’s crown and glory was a commission for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Inspired by the lyrics of the eponymous hymn (the so-called Black National Anthem), the 16-foot-high plaster imagined a chorus of African-American youth as the strings of a harp, cradled in the arm of God.
Alas, as she did not have the wherewithal to cast the piece in bronze or store it, it was razed as part of the Fair’s cleanup — this in spite of the fact that it attracted over five million visitors. Souvenir replicas, like the one here, are all that remain.
Ikemoto said, “In her life, Augusta Savage increased the visibility of African-American artists, created an infrastructure for their work and created an intellectual space for its discussion. And it’s still happening. It happens through stories like hers and exhibitions like this.”