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Major exhibition presents 175 works by 100 artists reponding to Mississippi over two centuries
William Aiken Walker (1839–1921), Cotton Gin in Adams County, Mississippi, 1883. oil on canvas. 14 ¼ x 22 ⅛ in. Collection of New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana. Gift of Paul J. Leaman Jr., 94.267.

JACKSON, MIS.- Picturing Mississippi, 1817–2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise, the landmark exhibition exploring Mississippi identity, commemorates the 200th anniversary of Mississippi’s statehood. Illuminating the perception and depiction of Mississippi over more than 200 years, the exhibition showcases 175 works by 100 artists who either resided in the state, visited, or lived elsewhere and were compelled to respond to a multiplicity of subjects. From Choctaw objects and sweeping landscapes to portraiture and contemporary work, the exhibition reveals that Mississippi has continuously resonated with artists in powerful ways as lived experience, memory, and imagination.

On view from December 9, 2017‒July 8, 2018, Picturing Mississippi is the sixteenth presentation in The Annie Laurie Swaim Hearin Memorial Exhibition Series at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

The exhibition features individual masterpieces by artists seldom exhibited in the state, including James Audubon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Thomas Hart Benton, George Caleb Bingham, John Steuart Curry, Robert Indiana, and Andy Warhol, alongside works by indigenous peoples, as well as by native Mississippians such as William Dunlap, Sam Gilliam, George Ohr, and Eudora Welty. Other prominent artists with works on view include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Melvin Edwards, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Kara Walker.

The works are on loan from private and prestigious national institutions—including Amon Carter Museum of American Art (Fort Worth, TX); Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AK); High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, DC); Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minneapolis, MN); Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, TX); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); National Portrait Gallery (Washington, DC); Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA); and, Smithsonian Institution, (Washington, DC)—and drawn from the Museum’s own collection.

“An unprecedented event for our state, Picturing Mississippi provides the unique opportunity to look at our history through the creative lenses of artists working across time, place, and media,” said Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art. “We are excited to share a diversity of impressions of Mississippi’s people, places, and histories. The exhibition and related programming reaffirm the seminal quote, attributed to native son William Faulkner, ‘To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.’ We hope the exhibition will inspire honest and wide- ranging conversation about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we hope to be.”

Organized thematically and chronologically into eight chapters, the exhibition enables visitors to consider artworks not just as objects but resonating within the context of their times as testimonials and as potential agents for change. Vignettes throughout the galleries heighten the inherent paradox of Mississippi, where art traditions, movements, content, and aesthetics collide.

A Contested Place: Native Americans and Europeans features objects made by indigenous peoples, notably Choctaws, for everyday uses and ceremonial functions both before European contact and after. A selection of historical paintings by European and American artists glorify and romanticize the Spanish and French explorers such as de Soto and LaSalle and depict Native Americans.

Natchez: Culture and Slavery presents portraits of the wealthy planter class made by artists from the North and Europe when Natchez was the state’s capital. In 1821, Jackson became the capital and quickly rose as the center of the political, economic, and social activity in Mississippi as the international demand for cotton grew. Enslaved Africans were the labor force that enabled the reign of King Cotton. Artists of the period rarely portrayed the human work involved in cotton production or the brutality of slavery.

From Statehood to Confederacy: Mississippi in Times of Peace and War considers how the Mississippi River was the natural highway connecting North and South and linking East and West through its tributaries. As portrayed by George Caleb Bingham and his contemporaries, life around the Missouri and Lower Mississippi was stable and harmonious. The Civil War changed that image of a peaceful coexistence. Images of war include views of distant bombardments during naval battles. Artists continued to portray historically important events from the war into the 20th century.

Art in the Age of Reconstruction reveals that, after the Civil War, the earliest and most consistent pictorial record from Mississippi came from artists working for Northern publications. Alfred Waud, for example, sketched the immediate effects of Reconstruction on the lives of African Americans and the restoration of Vicksburg. Whereas African-American achievements were still a rare subject, German immigrant painter Theodor Kaufmann created a portrait of Hiram Revels, the Mississippi statesman who became the first black U.S Senator. Under Jim Crow laws, artists like William Walker Aiken reverted to stereotypical images of African Americans as plantation laborers. While racial conflict and bigotry continued, other artists turned toward landscape painting, focusing on views along the Mississippi River that promoted the notion of natural abundance and beauty.

Land and Sea: Artists Explore Mississippi and the World examines how, at the end of the 19th century, the arts in Mississippi intersected with broader American art movements. Artists like Kate Freeman Clark and Betty McArthur returned to Mississippi after studying in New York or Paris, applying their training to local themes. Harold Huntington Betts traveled along the Mississippi and painted impressionistic canvases. Traveling and working along the waterways, from the Yazoo River to the Gulf Coast, artists depicted views promoting the natural abundance and beauty of the landscape. As the 20th century progressed, Mississippi attracted several well-known painters like Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry who took their sketches back to their studios in Kansas City or New York to create finished paintings.

Mississippi, the Great Depression, and Regional Identity presents work by artists like William Hollingsworth, through his paintings, and Eudora Welty, through her writing and photography, who became close observers and interpreters of people and scenes in Jackson. During this period, Mississippi painters and writers shared a common goal of translating their observations of day-to-day life. While much of the art from the period was grounded in local experience, photographers who arrived in the 1930s recorded the conditions of America’s rural poor including portraits of sharecroppers commissioned to promote federal relief programs. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, for example, were part of a group of Farm Security Administration photographers who traveled through the South exposing working and living conditions. Black artists often left the South for Chicago or New York where they found artistic freedom, fellowship, and cultural identity.

Shaping the Future: Art of Mississippi Since 1950 shows how the art of Mississippi has taken many different directions. From Civil Rights and environmental concerns to personal memory and identity, each work represents an artist’s individual journey that intersects with history on a deeper emotional level, whether through joyful commemoration or feelings of anger and trauma. Collectively, this group of works offers a small survey of art from recent decades and today and provides a basis to envision the art of Mississippi tomorrow.

Art in the Age of Civil Rights explores how this epicenter of the Civil Right movement inspired individuals and organizations to promote change through voter registration and desegregation, and who were often met with violent resistance. While artistic responses could come in many different forms of expression, the strongest reactions often came from artists who had left Mississippi when they were young and now observed it from outside, or from artists who simply felt it was time to condemn racism and bigotry.

While the works in this section focus on Mississippi, they are also testimony to the wider national and international artistic movement to find meaning in the history of struggle.

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color publication, Picturing Mississippi, 1817–2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise, published by University Press of Mississippi and organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art. While previous publications have focused on Mississippi art as a regional movement, this book, lavishly illustrated with more than one hundred illustrations, discusses Mississippi as a cultural landscape defined by cross-cultural exchange and conflict.

Essays by multiple authors offer new perspectives on the complex relationship between Mississippi and the visual arts it has inspired.

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