Our country’s regional wars may be over, but in the 1960s when the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) began, they were very much alive. Southern writers for instance were still working through the story of loss while northerners remained dubious about the value of southern culture. MESDA took a different path. The idea that the South did not need to justify itself to the world was a winning strategy for the museum back then, and it continues to be so as MESDA pushes beyond coastal high style into the backcountry of the South as described here by Laura Beach. Nothing undermines a prejudice more effectively than simply ignoring it.
Elsewhere in the South the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has shown another kind of moxie by forming fruitful partnerships with museums in Mexico, Canada, the Netherlands, France, and even New York. Closer to home, as Stephanie Cash explains, the High has taken Hale Woodruff’s powerful Talladega murals, restored them, and, along with Talladega College, sent them on a nationwide tour. One more instance of the way the High remains a cosmopolitan institution and an emphatically southern one.
Crude contradictions between North and South and other useless dichotomies are probably on my mind because I’ve spent some time in New Orleans for an article about the house of James Donald Didier, a man who is beyond category and thus quite good at getting you to rearrange your prejudices. Didier’s gift has had consequences for me recently…notably in my response to Winslow Homer’s The Life Line and Kathleen A. Foster’s remarkable book, exhibition, and article here on that painting.
I was immediately taken by Foster’s account of the conventions of maritime painting underlying Homer’s depiction of rescue at sea and even more so by seeing how all of his art brought him to this one moment in his art. Then, too, her grasp of social history made me look at a too familiar masterpiece anew. Eventually I was able to let go of my predisposition to consider The Life Line a great painting wrapped around a tired narrative-heroic rescue of fair lady-and see something else: For all the power of the sea in The Life Line what is transformative and thrilling is the way the artist makes us aware not just of nature’s power but of our own. The positioning of the two figures on the breeches buoy shows the world we inhabit as dangerous, and yet, in some sense manageable. Surely the painting’s modernity and much of its famous eroticism are owed to that.
And so on to other astonishments-a new view of Paul Cadmus, discoveries in Chinese export porcelains at the Peabody Essex Museum, Cecil Beaton’s invention of Syrie Maugham. Revelations all.