Mural Fortitude

A warning appears at the entrance to an exhibition of works related to John Wilson’s mural The Incident at the Yale University Art Gallery: It “may elicit strong emotional responses.” No such warning was available to the mural’s original viewers: pedestrians in Mexico City in the 1950s, who might have come unawares upon the 10-foot-tall color fresco of four Ku Klux Klansmen lynching a Black man while a frightened Black family looks on. “[T]he experience of encountering it would have been direct and visceral,” an object label at the museum notes.

That encounter today may be dampened by the mural’s presence in a museum, where you must choose to turn a corner in order to view it head-on, and by the fact that the wall hanging you’ll see is a black and white photographic reproduction of the original to scale, which was painted over or destroyed sometime after 1956. Nevertheless, it packs a powerful punch, not only as an artifact of a violent history but also because, even 68 years after its creation, it underscores the racial turbulence and injustices roiling our nation today.

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The mural’s figures are larger than life. The victim of a lynching slumps on the right side of the panel, a cut piece of rope around his neck; the other end is still knotted around a broken tree branch. Three figures in white Klan robes surround him while a fourth, clutching a shotgun, looks on from behind. The scene is viewed through a window; we are inside a room with the mural’s primary figure, another Black man, holding the barrel of a rifle in one hand and shielding a woman and infant with the angle of his body. The mother, in turn, clutches her child to her breast. Her eyes are frightened; the baby’s are open and knowing, as if they see already what it means to be a Black child in Jim Crow America.

The full exhibition, Reckoning with “The Incident”: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural, curated by Pamela Franks and Elisabeth Hodermarsky, includes 23 additional pieces comprising “nearly all of [the mural’s] known preparatory studies and related works,” Yale says. The exhibition was originally planned as a response to the opening of The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, founded by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018. Reckoning with “The Incident” opened at Yale in January after visiting three other colleges and universities, but its run was cut short by the pandemic. Its dates have now been extended through February 28, 2021, along with the similarly interrupted James Prosek: Art, Artifact, Artifice and Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art. (Free timed-entry tickets must be reserved in advance.)

Wilson painted The Incident in 1952 while studying at La Esmeralda, Mexico City’s national school of art. In Mexico, “Wilson felt free of the racial prejudice that he experienced in the United States,” according to a biographical sketch by Martha Richardson Fine Art, Wilson’s longtime Boston art dealer. “However, he was keenly aware of, and increasingly disturbed by, news reports from the States, including pervasive persecution of African-American men.” Wilson had been inspired to study in Mexico because he knew the work of muralists there, including José Clemente Orozco. “The Mexican’s deep connection to the plight of the underclass was an important revelation for Wilson,” Richardson Fine Art writes. “In Orozco, he found for the first time an artist whose work, both in form and content, paralleled his desire to create compelling images that exposed the oppression experienced by African Americans.” Painting the mural was not only a social act, however; it was also an attempt to “‘exorcise’ the feelings he had carried with him since seeing photographs of lynchings as a child,” says a YUAG brochure.

Two oil paintings serve as studies for the face of the mother in The Incident. One in vibrant color highlights her facial features in gold light. Another, begun in the mid-1950s but not completed until 1965, softens the colors, the light and even the woman’s facial details. Her eyes are rendered into dark holes, as if the focus of her gaze has been numbed. According to the Yale brochure, Wilson continued for decades to “return to certain motifs within the mural and to themes surrounding the history of race and social justice in America.” Among his best-known works is a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was installed in the US Capitol rotunda in 1986.

Also on view is a small-scale study, rendered in color, that gives a better sense of the impact the original mural must have had. Red and orange flames spiking from a burning cross in the upper right background are emphasized by the mother’s red dress in the lower left foreground. Those flames punctuate the pointed shapes of the hoods of the Klansmen. The presence of color also heightens the contrast between white robes and the dark everyday trousers and shoes peeking from beneath them, a chilling reminder that these are not spectral figures but rather real men who, in daylight, pose as law-abiding citizens.

Before the pandemic, the gallery was set up with three seating areas for reflection and study. Those features have been removed, but a sign remains, inviting “respectful conversation about the history of racial-terror lynching in America and the profound scars, both physical and emotional, it has left on the country’s collective consciousness.” The reckoning continues.

Reckoning with “The Incident”: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven
Fri 3-7pm, Sat-Sun noon-4pm through February 28, 2021 (reservation required)
(203) 432-0601 | artgalleryinfo@yale.edu
www.artgallery.yale.edu/exhibitions/…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-3 courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery. Image 1 features a compositional study for The Incident by John Wilson, 1952. Image 4 is a documentary gelatin silver print of John Wilson with The Incident, Mexico City, 1952, courtesy of Julia Wilson.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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