Our awareness of history is constantly evolving as we seek new and more inclusive perspectives about the past. Southern/Modern tells a story that has been conspicuously absent from the narrative of American art history. It is the tale of progressive visual art in the American South, particularly that which was created in the first half of the twentieth century. Bringing together more than one hundred paintings, prints, and drawings, the exhibition explores the wide range of artistic responses to the profound societal, cultural, and economic changes occurring across the region.
The lack of appreciation for Southern art was already evident in 1949, as a statement by a curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art makes clear: “Little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore,” he wrote. Since then, despite the growth in scholarship, the emergence of museums and collections in the South focused on its art, and numerous exhibitions and publications about individual artists from the region, there have been relatively few efforts to address Southern art in a comprehensive fashion, and none to survey this period in depth.
Southern/Modern features artists working below the Mason-Dixon line and as far west as the Mississippi River. It also includes artists from other parts of the country whose imagery relates to Southern experiences. Presenting works created between 1913 and 1955, the exhibition is structured around key themes that cut across geographic regions: race, class, the land, urbanization, and the broad impact of modernization. Taking a wide-ranging view of artists working in the South, it examines the central role played by women artists and artists of color, providing a fuller, richer, and more accurate overview of the artistic activity in the region than has been presented previously.
We hope that you will enjoy viewing these works of art and that you will leave Southern/Modern with a new admiration for this region’s rich cultural heritage.
Works in this gallery show people posing for portraits, going shopping, or hanging out with friends. Although, in the national imagination, Southerners’ cultural distinctiveness is often stereotyped and exaggerated, these images show a common humanity—everyone can identify with portrayals of leisure and camaraderie. However, they also reveal the racial division that has defined this region—as it has the entire nation, if not always quite so visibly—for centuries. While most works depict both Black and white southerners, they are rarely seen together. Only Lamar Dodd’s Bargain Basement and Caroline Durieux’s Bourbon Street, New Orleans hint at interaction across racial lines.
While paintings in this section focus on Black and white Southerners from the past, who has been left out? How might a portrayal of the South’s diverse populations look different today?
Landscape as Metaphor
The landscape of the South, from its cotton and tobacco fields to its coastal beaches and marshes, to its heavily forested mountains and hills further inland, has long been a source of inspiration for Southern artists. Land and the agrarian traditions that link Southerners to it are deeply tied to the region’s identity.
Paintings in this gallery convey the complicated relationship between the land and humanity. Some show the relative self-sufficiency of agricultural life; others reveal the devastation of the landscape, ravaged by decades of overcultivation, mining, and deforestation. In each, the landscape is not simply a vision of nature apart from humanity—it is an arena for human aspiration, memory, care, and disregard.
Although agriculture is still a critical part of the Southern economy and the region’s natural beauty is renowned, increased development and pollution continue to threaten the land, air, and water, often in rural or lower-income areas. What steps have we taken to counter threats to our environment? What new challenges does the South face in a time of climate change?
Religion and Ritual
Religious and spiritual traditions help create bonds and continuity in communities, and they appear frequently in Southern/Modern. For example, white artists John Kelly Fitzpatrick, Lamar Baker, and John McCrady were moved by Black baptism rituals and popular spirituals. Black artists, too, were inspired by spiritually stirring subject matter, as seen in Malvin Johnson’s powerful painting Roll Jordan Roll and Eldzier Cortor’s enigmatic evocation of Gullah culture in his Sea of Time.
Works in this gallery focus on the Black Christian church. Yet a wide range of religious traditions—including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and many other faiths—continue to have a powerful influence on the formation of cultural beliefs and attitudes across the South. Have such traditions had an impact on your own community?
Segregation and Jim Crow
Works in this gallery reflect some of the darker realities of life in the South in the first half of the twentieth century. From the military to the beach, prison farms, and even town squares, individual and systemic racism pervaded the everyday lives of Southerners. This often manifested as intimidation and violence, as white supremacists went to vicious lengths to maintain social and political control, and Jim Crow laws provided a legal framework for relegating Black Americans to second-class citizenship throughout the South until 1965. Here, paintings and prints by some of the leading artists of midcentury America expose and resist this ideology of hate.
Works in this section pay tribute to Southern laborers, the lifeblood of the region’s economy. We see sharecroppers and gleaners working fields owned by others, factory employees facing harsh working conditions and poverty wages, fishermen mending nets, and the bleak living quarters of shrimp pickers.
Most of the images were created in the 1930s and ’40s, a period when American scene, social realist, and regionalist painters were depicting everyday people living and working in cities, towns, and rural areas across the nation. Having witnessed the impacts of the Great Depression and its aftermath, these artists often expressed solidarity with workers struggling to survive.
Many of these works depict people trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty. As the cost of living rises in Nashville and other cities in the South, what is the effect today both on those who aren’t receiving a living wage and our communities?
Cities and Industry
The population and demographics of the South underwent significant shifts during the first half of the twentieth century. Many Black residents left the region during the Great Migration, heading north to seek new opportunities and escape racist violence and Jim Crow segregation. Simultaneously, both Black and white Southerners moved away from rural areas and tenant farming to seek jobs in new factories and mills. Many industries moved from the north to cities and towns across the South, taking advantage of cheap labor, tax incentives, lax environmental and worker protections, and other benefits for business owners. The region’s population swelled with people looking for work, and Southern economies began a period of rapid growth that continues to this day.
As cities evolved and industries such as textile, steel, chemicals, and furniture-making boomed, they provided new subject matter and inspiration for the region’s artists. Some were attracted to new architecture, which translated well into geometric abstraction. Others focused on the rise of modern technologies and heavy industry.
Industrialization and urbanization are often associated with “modernization,” not through the introduction of progressive social ideologies, but as engines of economic development. How does the progress sought by modern artists and industry overlap and how might they be in conflict?
Planting New Seeds: Colonies and Schools
In the early to mid-twentieth century, many aspiring artists left the South to attend art school in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Chicago, or in Europe, where they could absorb modernist ideals and aesthetics. Some of them returned home to take teaching positions at colleges and universities in newly formed art departments across the South. One of the most renowned artists’ training grounds was Black Mountain College near Asheville, which welcomed international faculty and ushered in modernist practices that garnered national attention.
At the same time, numerous artist colonies and other artist associations in the South were formed, encouraging the exchange of ideas and providing opportunities for exhibitions. Some of the most prominent were the Natchitoches Art Colony in Mississippi; the Dixie Art Colony in Alabama; the Arts and Crafts Club in New Orleans; the Mississippi Art Colony; the colony in Tryon, North Carolina; and the Southern States Art League.
Today, what impact do universities and colleges have across the South as they bring in art faculty from around the world? Similarly, how can the region’s art museums—many established in the first half of the twentieth century—broaden visitors’ horizons and influence their communities?
Most of the artists in this exhibition spent time outside of the South, gaining exposure to the latest trends in art in places like New York and Paris, where they might have seen the work of such influential figures as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, and Pablo Picasso.
Back home, they processed these new approaches while developing their own expressive styles and ideas. Some incorporated the basic elements of modern art—simplifying or stylizing forms, flattening compositions, and exploring pure color relationships—while still making relatively representational work. Others pushed harder at traditional boundaries in works that were more fully abstract.
The story of modern art is one of global transmission and adaptation. Do the works in this gallery transcend Southernness to become international, or do they convey new ideas about the South and its changing identity?