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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Professors analyze the art of Carl Van Vechten

Published: October 12, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

Brandeis’ Close Looking series kicked off this Wednesday in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall with a look at the work of Carl Van Vechten, an artist with a diverse career that included photography. While the program started a half an hour late, the discussion, led by Professors Nancy Scott (FA) and Faith Smith (AAAS) quickly began and finished within the allotted time. It featured just a few of the 1,600 pieces of Van Vechten’s work owned by the University Archives Special Collections.

Smith and Scott talked about both the aesthetic qualities of the pieces, as well as Van Vechten’s personal history as both an artist and a patron to the arts. Van Vechten dealt mainly in portraiture, capturing some of the most prominent artists, writers and entertainers of his day. Portraits that were featured included those of Frida Kahlo, W.E.B DuBois, Salvador Dali and Zora Neal Hurston. Starting in the 1930s, Van Vechten began to photograph figures in the art community, mainly in New York. In particular, he focused on the African American community, both in his controversial and harshly criticized novel about Harlem-life in 1926, and in his choices of subjects when he moved on to photography.

Scott characterized Van Vechten’s goal in photography as a way to capture everyone who was essential to art in New York City at the time. Before he began his work in portraits in 1932, Van Vechten was a novelist and a successful music critic. He approached photography as an amateur, never showcased his work, and did not take photographs for profit. He simply captured his friends—and both Scott and Smith agree that it was a mark of importance to an artist if they could count Van Vechten as a friend. Indeed, having been photographed by him was a marker that the person could be taken seriously as an artist.

Though he took photographs mainly for himself and his friends, Scott showed that Van Vechten’s works do not lack aesthetic appeal. He featured people in a variety of poses and backdrops, often featuring strong geometric patterns. Scott says that the portraits of Van Vechten’s friends have heavily influenced how they are remembered today by much of the public, giving him a lasting influence on how artists of his era are perceived. For example, his portrait of Zora Neal Hurston is featured on her books today.

Smith led the second half of the presentation by discussing Van Vechten’s significance in putting forth representations of the African American community. She says that he was a patron of African American art in a time when imitating that culture was in vogue, putting the authenticity of his intentions in question. His portraits show a staged version of African Americans, allowing him to manipulate stereotypes. At the same time, he was caught in the middle of an era full of conflicting ideas of how to break with the old ways.
Scott maintained, however, that rather than trying to manipulate the image of the African American artist, he was trying to promote it as it was. Throughout his careers as music critic, novelist and photographer, he was interested in the documentation of the world around him for generations to come. This is why he bequeathed over 1,600 of his photographs to the university upon his death in 1964, and why he helped fellow artists like Georgia O’Keefe set up exhibitions at other universities.

His work as an archivist later in life was just an extension of his work as an art patron. Smith says that he balanced the role of friend and patron. For example, one of his famous friends, Langston Hughes, sent him poetry to edit and review; Van Vechten responded by using his leverage with Alfred Knopf to get the poems published. On other occasions, he acted more as a friend by helping Zora Neal Hurston through dark times; because of this, she dedicated her novel “Tell My Horse” to him.

Van Vechten was a man who befriended some of the most talented people of his time. He not only helped them as a patron, but as a friend, often giving artists their first mark of distinction by photographing them. While Smith showed that his authenticity can be viewed as contentious, Scott showed that his legacy is one of an advocate for the arts and as a preserver of African American art culture of the first half of the twentieth century.