Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge, and confronting the “Lost Cause” Narrative in Art.

This post is part of a broader series I will be doing over the next few weeks highlighting the work of black artists in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Because Black Lives Matter, and Black Art Matters, too.

Seeing the debate over Confederate statues resurface has me thinking about Mark Bradford’s Pickett Charge piece at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington DC.

Bradford is known for making thick, layered collages that he tears back and destroys as he goes. His medium and techniques are a perfect metaphor for the American story of race, migration, urbanization, gentrification, and other related issues. So much erasure, rebuilding, recontextualizing, and reclaiming has been done over the years when it comes to the story of race in America.

One of the biggest lies in the history of American art has been the story told by these Confederate statues, which were erected during a period of time in which the “Lost Cause” narrative was being pushed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy throughout the South. While lynching and Jim Crow was at its worst, these ladies were hard at work spreading a version of history that romanticized the Confederacy and its generals while downplaying and erasing the horrors of slavery.

If you have spent any time at Civil War battle sites and museums, you have probably seen paintings and images like this painting of Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. This painting is of one event that is central to the “Lost Cause” idea, the doomed charge was the inflection point of the war for the South and considered the turning point leading to their loss.

Paul Philippoteaux’s The Battle of Gettysburg (1883). 

William Faulkner wrote:

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet…”

William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (Source: Wikipedia)

Bradford’s take on this work is built up with images of Philippoteaux’s original painting and also embraces its “Cyclorama” format. It is fully in the round, which makes it especially suited for the circular Hirschhorn Museum. Cycloramas were meant to bring the viewer into the action of the battle. Here, though, it’s a different kind of battle playing out, with shifting narratives, and evolving ideas manifesting in visual form.

Art as well as historical events are always subject to reinterpretation and new meaning in light of our evolving notions of historical events.

The history and meanings of Confederate statues across the South have many layers. Take the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond for example. There is the history of the man himself, a slave owner, who resigned his commission in the US military to fight for the South. There is the history of the broader conflict of the Civil War (which no matter who tries to tell you otherwise, was definitely about slavery). Thirdly, there is the history of the erection of these statues and the narrative they were deployed to reinforce, a narrative that continues to be sympathetic to white southerners’ sensabilities.

And finally, there is the history that is being made now, when the death of George Floyd has finally pulled back the veil on systemic racism and brutality which has seethed at the heart of our society for hundreds of years.

This part of the story is being told by Black Lives Matter activists and, well, all of us alive today.

Artists and their patrons don’t have control over how their work will be received by future generations. Removing statues and other public reminders of the brutality they represent for so many people is right and necessary.

The best thing will be for them to be displayed in museums and put into the broadest context possible, a context that recognizes the realities of slavery, the war fought to uphold the institution of slavery, the decades of vicious violence that followed the Reconstruction, and the continuing conversation about racism today.

And I hope we will all follow that example, of digging through and recognizing all of the layers both in ourselves and in the society we continue to build, tear down, and remake.

Here are some other pieces by Bradford I love:

“Moody Blues for Jack Whitten,” 2018, by Mark Bradford. 
“Black Venus” 2005, Mark Bradford
“A Truly Rich Man is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms When His Hands are Empty,” 2008, Mark Bradford.
“Scorched Earth” 2006, Mark Bradford.

That last image is a favorite of mine. It suggests burned city blocks seen from the safety of the air. It begs the question, what will we build in their place?

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