Artist Charles White’s Triumph with Portier and Belafonte
Regarding art, certain creators emerge as enduring wellsprings of inspiration, and Charles White unquestionably finds his place among this illustrious pantheon. Born in 1918, White overcame formidable adversity and discrimination to ascend to the ranks of a distinguished artist. As conveyed through audio recordings during the exhibition - Charles White: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York - he articulated, "I came of age in Chicago, a city steeped in the rich tradition of Blues music. It was an environment that nurtured legendary Blues luminaries such as Leo Green, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill, and Little Bill."
White's journey was profoundly shaped by the blues and the rich musical culture of his time. Akin to the blues, his art possessed an extraordinary level of strength and effectiveness previously unparalleled. He asserted, "Art is a force, you see, art is a vital force, it is alive for us." With great confidence, he added, "If it affects one iota of a man's feelings, then it possesses the energy behind it that a hydrogen bomb has." This vibrant energy emanated from his work, resonating with those who encountered it.
In 1956, Charles White moved to Southern California, where he found inspiration for his art and formed a friendship with actor Sidney Poitier. Reflecting on this pivotal era, the artist's impact reached far beyond the confines of the canvas; it graced album covers and TV screens, including Harry Belafonte's Tonight With Belafonte. White's art transcended boundaries and was not limited to a single medium. Echoing the words of Belafonte, "It shook up television because they never quite saw anything like that, all this blackness. It was incredible." Harry Belafonte further encapsulated the essence of White's work, saying, "I love what he said in his paintings. He didn't minimize who we were. There's always that fierce passion for truth in the faces of his characters."
Belafonte became a recurring subject in White's artwork. Pieces such as Folksinger (Voice of Jericho: Portrait of Harry Belafonte) and J'Accuse #6 authenticated the profound connection between the two friends. Sidney Poitier's invitation to the set of The Defiant Ones was an unforgettable experience for White. It led to him creating the poster art for the film, The Defiant Ones, which brought Best Actor Academy Award nominations for Sidney Poitier and his co-star Tony Curtis.
White's art was not limited to visual representations but extended its influence to music. "Through his paintings," said Belafonte, "I was inspired to find the songs that equaled what I saw his paintings reflect. And in looking for what his paintings reflect, I was able to discover Lead Belly." This discovery led to the integration of White's artistic vision into Belafonte's music, expanding the cultural landscape in profound ways. White's drawings were featured in Belafonte's 1962 book, Songs Belafonte Sings.
White skillfully captured the likenesses of many legendary singers and musicians in his evocative artwork, including Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, and Mahalia Jackson. His masterful brushwork and keen attention to detail breathed life into their portraits, rendering them with extraordinary depth and expression.
White's art was featured on several notable album covers, including Contemporary American Masterpieces: Gould: Spirituals for Orchestra; Copland: Dance Symphony, which was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Album Cover-Graphic Arts in 1965 and more recently, the cover art for Harry Belafonte's multi-CD recording, The Long Road to Freedom.
"You look at Charlie White," remarked Harry Belafonte as he began to illustrate the triumph in White's art, "and you look at the faces of black people, there's a serenity. There's a hope. There's always a strength in his characters." White's portrayal of the black experience was not of meager or starving individuals, but of powerful, resilient souls.
Charles White's artistic journey was deeply connected to the civil rights struggle. He once noted, "You have to be humble in the face of the task that you have assumed. You are imparting ideas, these ideas affect people. Here we are in the midst of a tremendous struggle." His art was not only a reflection of the times but an active participant in the ongoing fight for social justice.
Despite enduring personal tragedies and experiencing discrimination, White steadfastly held onto a profound faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. "There have been several tragedies in my family's history, including five lynchings—two uncles and three cousins over many years." Yet, he continued, "I maintain my belief that, fundamentally, humanity is good."
Charles White's profound artwork and mentorship continue to inspire. His legacy as a master of the canvas survives, and his influence still paints a vibrant picture today. In the grand tapestry of art, Charles White is not just a star; he's a constellation, a guiding light for those who dare to push boundaries, and a timeless inspiration for those who believe in the power of art to change the world.