Southern Souvenir No. II presents an unsettling dreamscape: beneath a dark moon that emanates a halo of greyish light, nude female torsos are strewn among gnarled branches and remnants of domestic life. The painting, by African American artist Eldzier Cortor, evokes scenes of racist violence, the dilapidation of poverty, and the destruction of a natural disaster. The artist’s vision is manifested through meticulous rendering: tiny brushstrokes define shining flesh and worn brick, newspaper mastheads from Birmingham and Charleston are legible, and black tree bark is painted three dimensionally, jutting out nearly half an inch from the picture’s surface. The reality and psychological toll of racial violence is clear, though the artist hasn’t attempted to compose a scene or tell a specific story.
On loan from the Art Bridges collection, Southern Souvenir No. II is on view in Gallery 15, a gallery devoted to the range of realisms practiced by American artists between the 1920s and the 1960s. The heirs of the Ashcan School’s urban realism—Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop—hang across from detailed, regionalist paintings by the Wyeth family. Recent acquisitions by Edward Loper, Malvin Gray Johnson, and Robert Neal mark the significant contributions of African American artists in the early 20th century. And psychological tension builds in works by Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Hughie Lee-Smith.
Cortor’s approach to realism is different. His meticulous handling and dreamlike juxtaposition of elements align the painting to surrealism and magic realism—artistic movements often associated more with European and Latin American art of this period. This is not to say that these movements didn’t have traction in the United States. In 1943, the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibition called American Realists and Magic Realists, which featured works by Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper among others. In the introduction to that catalogue, Lincoln Kirstein explained the operation of magic realism: “Magic realists try to convince us that extraordinary things are possible simply by painting them as if they existed.” This tradition is not well represented in the Museum’s collection, which is one of the reasons I was excited to borrow Southern Souvenir No. II from Art Bridges.
The other reason, of course, is the consideration of race and American history that Cortor’s painting prompts. Incredibly detailed and gorgeously painted, Southern Souvenir No. II forces us to consider what Cortor experienced on his travels through the American South in the 1940s.
This haunting painting is on view at the Delaware Art Museum through July 2021, and I find myself visiting it often. I’m looking forward to learning more about Southern Souvenir No. II when I host an Art Chat with Tiffany Barber and Dara Stevens Meredith on February 18, 2021. I hope you will join me to learn more about Cortor, modern painting, and American history.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art
Above: Eldzier Cortor. Southern Souvenir No. II, c. 1948. Oil on board mounted on Masonite ™ on wood strainer, 35 1/2 x 64 1/2 inches. Art Bridges. © Estate of Eldzier Cortor / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.