Hale Aspacio Woodruff's "By Parties Unknown" (1935)
Background and Overview
This particular printing of Hale Aspacio Woodruff’s By Parties Unknown (1935) was acquired by Ackland Art Museum in October of 2013, as a gift from Auldlyn Higgins Williams and E.T. Williams Jr. of New York in memory of Vivian Giles Chambers and Julius Le Vonne Chambers. The print was valued in July of 2017 at $1,000, as were each of the other prints in its series of eight, sometimes called “The Atlanta Portfolio” or “Selections from the Atlanta Period” (including Giddap! which appears in another exhibit). The sheet of paper it is printed on is 50 by 38 centimeters, while the block (where it is inked) is 30.5 by 23.3 cm. Former curator Timothy Riggs remarked in this piece’s curatorial file at Ackland that the print and its set represent “aspects of life and its hardships and dangers for African Americans in the 1930s South, a theme that needs better representation in our collection.”
The title of the work alludes to the common but questionable claim by Southern authorities that the perpetrators of lynchings could not by identified (Langa 110). Although this particular print was created in 1996 by Robert Hamilton Blackburn from the original linocut, the original print was entered into the NAACP’s 1935 exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching in New York City. Organized by the association’s leader Walter White, the exhibition was part of a push to reinstate the NAACP’s legislative campaign against lynching, a practice on the rise again after having slowed dramatically since the 1890s. The exhibition was thus used as a way to draw attention to the effort to stop lynching in the United States, which persisted even in the face of modernization across the South and across the nation (Langa 96). The various works displayed as a part of An Art Commentary on Lynching represented a variety of methods for opposing lynching through visual media, reflecting the varied political, racial, cultural, and gender identities of the artists (Langa 99).
By Parties Unknown reflects some of the common themes that can be seen in other prints from Woodruff’s “Atlanta Portfolio.” These works were created during Woodruff’s time in Atlanta in the early 1930s, when he taught at and headed the art department at Atlanta University (Sumrell 132). During this period, Woodruff most commonly created murals and organized expeditions promoting community involvement with art and culture (Sumrell 136). The “Atlanta Portfolio,” though somewhat a departure from these projects, still reflects Woodruff’s interest in the African American community and its state within American culture. Although a few prints in the portfolio portray the beauty of African American culture, most of the images display African American hardship in the 1930’s American South. Old Church and Relics, for instance, feature dilapidated buildings that seem on the verge of crumbling into ruin, reflecting the severe poverty many African American communities were experiencing. These linocuts emphasize the ruin by foregrounding structures as their subjects, but not including people within the frame. Relics in particular suggests that the old building, despite being a “relic” of the past, is still in use, even though no people are present; an emaciated mule and a ladder propped up against the building demonstrate that these dilapidated relics of a former economy are still needed in the modern world, emphasizing a sense of desperation. Coming Home features angular rooftops and slumping walls, which also seem ready to collapse as the laborer presumably comes home with his meager pay. Two prints—By Parties Unknown and Giddap!—directly illustrate the disturbing persistence of lynching in the African American community, suggesting that the fear this practice causes and the oppression it perpetuates are also a common source of plight for them at this time.
Content and Analysis
By Parties Unknown is immediately disturbing, featuring a backdrop of decay as a building crumbles in the background, a lynched black body at the foreground on the steps of structure, and the cold medium of the linocut which contains the entire image. Linocuts seem naturally to be a harsh and cold medium; there is no color, aside from the ink and the surface it is printed on. Lighting and shading is difficult to reproduce, and thus the entire image takes on a general shadowy darkness. With large areas of “silent” black ink, devoid of design, in the lower part of the piece and encroaching from the top into the image, the technique reflects the silence of the scene; the dead body speaks no more, and as the title suggests, those who perpetrated the atrocity against this body will also not be discovered. At the same time, because a linocut can be mass produced, the method also adds silence to the artist, who cuts the initial linoleum block but then, in a sense, relinquishes production to anyone who possesses the block and can recreate the same artwork. This particular example, for instance, was printed over sixty years after the original block was created by Woodruff. The distance from the artist and the circumstances of its creation contributes to the sense of silence and cold uneasiness produced by the piece, making it seem impersonal and remote. At the same time, the choice to reprint this work so many years after its initial creation suggests both a continued interest in the artist and a continuing relevance to what the work represents.
The decay of the old building, probably a church as indicated by the stained glass windows, at once parallels and contrasts the body that has been left at its doorsteps. The choice of the lynch mob to leave the victim at this building suggests that it is an African American church, whose members would feel intimidated by this act of violence against a black body. Lynch mobs, after all, did not always leave their victims on doorsteps; often, they were left in the public square where they had been violently killed to strike fear into the black community that would have to come collect the remains.
Both the victim and the church in this image are tattered and torn; the clothes of the man are ripped and his skin is broken; so too is the building, with its decaying siding and holes that expose the interior lath and plaster from behind. Such seems to represent the parallel attack of lynching on African American individuals and the community the church represents. In many cases, as argued by Ida B. Wells and many other anti-lynching activists, lynching was perpetrated on black men who were finding social or economic success, in order to maintain white supremacy. The broader attack of lynching, then, extends far beyond the men and women who were murdered without trial for supposed crimes. It also attacks the feelings of safety and security, and the will to achieve, in the black community as a whole – like the joy and worship of the decaying church in this silent scene, which is tattered along with the lynch victim at its doorsteps. Although he was suddenly and recently killed, as opposed to the building’s slow and gradual decay, the destruction of both has been caused by the same forces of oppression and fear. As Helen Langa argues, leaving the body at the foot of the church stairs adds “additional insult to the dignity of the African American community” (110).
Subtle Christian imagery in the stained glass, namely, a faint crucifix in the upper left pane of the left window, suggests an association of this unjustly murdered victim with Christ, as Langston Hughes’s “Christ in Alabama” poem, which appears in the Contempo exhibit, also alludes to. Perhaps like Christ, this African American man was an innocent victim of an angry mob which chose to put him to death for crimes he did not commit, like the mob which called for Pontius Pilate to release Barabbas and crucify Christ instead. Langa argues a similar point in relation to Woodruff’s Giddap! piece which appeared in the same expedition; the artists’ choice in imagery portrays black men as “innocent scapegoats in white men’s violent efforts to enforce their social control” (110).
Nevertheless, there remain striking contrasts between the church and the victim that has been left on its doorstep. This imagery also emphasizes that the church and the community which worships there were unable to save this individual from the fury of the mob. The church building is an old structure, which is fading in the modern world; even if the ancient institution of religion it represents lives on and adjusts to modernity in other communities, this particular building is a remnant of history that is fading into oblivion as the structure itself rots away. Perhaps the influence of the congregation inside, or of religion in this community, is fading in importance as well. Lynching was often called an outdated institution even at its height, and was seen by many of its critics as an essentially medieval practice that had no place in the modern world. Yet even if the practice of lynching is ancient like the church, while this church fades in importance and influence, lynching continues to thrive in the modern world enough to produce the death and fear that this body indicates.
Woodruff thus demonstrates through By Parties Unknown that the pervasive fear and decay lynching continued to cause in the 1930s seeped into and degraded the modern world, even as it seemed to be a practice belonging in the past. Many of the prints in the Atlanta Portfolio demonstrate the difficulties African Americans faced in this time, but By Parties Unknown suggests that lynching is a method of terror underlying many of these hardships through its creation of fear, discouragement, and insecurity.
This print of Woodruff’s work, created in 1996 by Robert Hamilton Blackburn, is held in the Ackland Art Gallery of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, several other museums hold other printings of the same linocut. This includes The Met in New York City, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the Portland Art Museum.
Further Reading and Bibliography
Dunkley, Tina. “Hale Woodruff (1900-1980).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 09 Feb 2016. Web. 4 Dec 2017.
Langa, Helen. “Two Antilynchign Art Expeditions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspectives, Gendered Constraints.” NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art, vol. 20, 2006, 96-115.
Sumrell, Morgan. “Hale Woodruff: The Harlem Renaissance in Atlanta.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and Hisotry, vol. 37, no. 2, 2013, 115-153.
Woodruff, Hale Aspacio. By Parties Unknown. 1935. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill.Digital Images
Woodruff, Hale Aspacio. By Parties Unknown. 1935. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Philadelphiamuseum.org. Web. 29 Nov 2017. http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/332789.html?mulR=23050928%7C2
Woodruff, Hale Aspacio. Selections from the Atlanta Period (Portfolio of 8 Works). 1935. Artnet Worldwide Corporation. Artnet.com. Web. 4 Dec 2017. https://www.artnet.com/auctions/artists/hale-aspacio-woodruff/selections-from-the-atlanta-period-portfolio-of-8-works