“The Visual Arts in Arturo A. Schomburg’s Black Atlantic,” César Salgado, was recently published in 80 grados, one my favorite on-line publications on culture, literature, and the arts.
The prominent status of the visual arts in Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s career as a collector of Africana and race author is evident in the cache of over 1000 etchings and prints that was part of the legendary collection he sold to the New York Public Library in 1926. [. . .] Although Schomburg died without finishing any single book based on his extensive archival and bibliographical efforts, he outlined a book project related to Afro-Atlantic visual arts in a one-page typescript found among his unpublished papers. It is a prospectus organized as the tentative table of contents of a twelve-chapter volume under the title “The Negro in the Field of Painting.” It may have been, more than a work-in-progress, an idea-in-progress that failed to come to fruition in Schomburg’s late years.
Schomburg’s great concern for the visual arts complicates the general academic consensus that regards Schomburg mostly as an avid bibliophile and curator of lettered artifacts, rare books, and manuscripts by or about Africans and Afro-descendants. The attention he paid to grand European Master painting as an important venue for Black enterprise and uplift was as keen as that he placed on other cultural forms of subaltern agency. In Schomburg’s essays, Black painters appear as transcendental facilitators for the historical progress of Africans and Afro-descendents; their works merit the same veneration as the poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Phillis Wheatley or the battlefield victories of Antonio Maceo, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Henri Christophe. To Schomburg, the paintbrush in the Negro’s hand is often mightier than either pen or sword. The Black painter’s capacity for effective iconic fashioning and hands-on participation in image politics seems to have for Schomburg as much historical consequence as the slave poet’s lyrics or the Caribbean general’s rebel campaign.
Although there is no date on the prospectus, Schomburg’s book project on Negro Painters was part of the third and last phase in his career as a Harlem/Brooklyn intellectual, antiquarian, and race leader. This phase begins in 1926, after he sells his legendary collection to the New York Public Library and uses the money to travel abroad on a two month “grand continental tour” in search of representations of and by Black subjects throughout the great art museums of Europe. Schomburg scheduled research and acquisition visits to archives, booksellers, and antiquarian shops throughout his trip, including consulting at Seville’s Archivo General the ecclesiastical records of the city’s Cofradía de Negritos and purchasing 185 bibliographical items that he later donated to the NYPL Schomburg collection. Still, we know from his letters and writings that Schomburg’s main concern in this voyage was the study of European studio painting by or about Afro-descendants dating from or inspired by High Renaissance academic techniques in portraiture and spatial perspective.
Schomburg’s conventional vision of the graphic artist becomes clear in an undated autobiographical text found among his unpublished papers in which he speaks in detail about his experience as an admirer and promoter of the Fine Arts. The text was probably a draft for a speech given at the inauguration of one of the many Afro-American art exhibits that Schomburg helped put together with the support of the Harmon Foundation in the mid 1930s. Schomburg starts out recalling that his schooling in San Juan included extensive training in the graphic arts.
[. . .] This brief testimony lays out Schomburg’s iconic vision both of Black Atlantic artistic agency and art appreciation. Artistry is mostly learned; it is not a spontaneous or folk activity. It requires systematic academic schooling with the right manuals and props, under the guidance of experts trained in Europe who, thanks to their disinterest and rigor, recognize and promote the artistic talents of non-white subjects such as Sebastián Gómez, Juan de Pareja, and Campeche. [. . .]