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Peggy and David Rockefeller’s art at Christie’s

“Eventually all these objects which have brought so much pleasure to Peggy and me will go out into the world and will again be available to other caretakers who, hopefully, will derive the same satisfaction and joy from them as we have over these past several decades.”
(David Rockefeller, 1992)

Exhibition and Auction:
The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller

New York: 20 Rockefeller Plaza
Through March 10, 2018

“To date, Christie’s dedicated Rockefeller sales have made $764.4 million—and there are three more live sales and a variety of online sales still to come … last night’s European art auction [May 8, 2018] … generated a smashing $646 million total.” (Artnet News, © Artnet Worldwide Corporation)

Of Interest: Robin Pogrebin, “Pulled From Rockefeller Walls, Picasso, Matisse and Monet Fetch Big Prices,” The New York Times

Pablo Picasso, Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers. Paris. Spring 1905. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, sold for $115 million Tuesday night at Christie’s Rockefeller auction.

Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923. Oil on canvas. 23¾ x 31⅞ in (60.5 x 81.1 cm). © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2018. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller – sold for $80.8 million Tuesday night at Christie’s Rockefeller auction in New York.

Paul Signac, Opus 217. “Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890,” 1890. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York.

Edouard Manet (1832–1883), Lilas et roses, 1882. Oil on canvas. 12¾ x 9¾ in (32.4 x 24.7 cm). The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York.

Claude Monet: Extérieur de la gare Saint-Lazare, effet de soleil, 1877. Painted in Paris. Oil on canvas. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Untitled XIX, 1982. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 80 x 70 in (203.2 x 177.8 cm). © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York.

Juan Gris, La table de musician, 1914. Demonstrating the cubist artist’s ability, La table conjures solid objects from oil, gouache, colored wax crayons, charcoal and paper collage on canvas. Although Picasso and Braque also used these techniques Gris is regarded as the ‘master of form’. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York.

David Rockefeller and Peggy McGrath Rockefeller. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Matisse’s “Odalisque couchée aux magnolias” (left) and David Rockefeller (right)

Featured image: John Singer Sargent: San Geremia, 1913. Oil on canvas. Painted on Sargent’s last trip to Venice where he stayed with his friends the Curtis’ at Palazzo Barbaro. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York.

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“‘Every work I create is a mathematical dream’ – an interview with Beatriz Milhazes,” By Amandas Ong

Beatriz Milhazes creates colourful compositions in a variety of mediums, inspired by landscape of Brazil and modernist traditions in both Europe and Latin America. She speaks to Amandas Ong about her new exhibition, ‘Rio Azul’, at White Cube in Bermondsey.

‘Rio Azul’ means ‘blue river’ in Portuguese, but it also refers to an important Mayan site in Guatemala. How did you arrive at this title for the exhibition?
It’s the title of the tapestry that’s on display. The idea of a river is probably what inspired me most: in our imagination, rivers are blue, but they can also be any other colour depending on the light. There’s also something magical about rivers because they support life.

It was very difficult to choose a title that could capture the diversity of my work – I paint, I make collages, and now I make tapestries, too. But the tapestry is one of the largest works on display. And in all my work it’s important for me that viewers are able to engage in a dialogue between symbolism and material fact, so I wanted the title to reflect this interaction.

Installation view, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: Rio Azul’ at White Cube, Bermondsey, 2018. Photo: © White Cube (Ollie Hammick); © Beatriz Milhazes

The tapestry is one of a number of works in the show made collaboratively with others. What role does collaboration play in your artistic process?
I’ve always enjoyed and been curious about collaborative effort. I worked with my sister, Marcia Milhazes, to design the set for the performances that she choreographs for her dance company, but was happy for her to make most of the major creative decisions – she’s the one who stages the actual dances.

To make Rio Azul, I had to learn lots about weaving, which is a whole different craft to anything I’d ever done before, so that was fascinating. Collaboration requires a generosity of spirit, and you need to strike a balance between pushing your ideas across and knowing when to be a bit more passive. Because the weavers were the ones who had the technical knowledge to make my dream come to life, I had to make sure they really understood my vision and were on the same page as me.

Installation view, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: Rio Azul’ at White Cube, Bermondsey, 2018. Photo: © White Cube (Ollie Hammick); © Beatriz Milhazes

What it was like working with the master weavers at the Pinton Mill in France to create the tapestry?
I chose the Pinton Mill, who have been operating since 1867, because they had a rich tradition of working with modernist artists like Sonia Delaunay and Alexander Calder. The partnership felt a little like travelling back in time – to work in the same space as Delaunay was a huge honour for me.

I was very impressed by how closely the Pinton family is involved in the creative process, from shearing the wool to dyeing to the actual weaving. It took more than a year to have the tapestry made – and up until the moment when it was unveiled, nobody had seen it in its entirety, even the weavers, because different groups would be participating in the project at any one time. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.

Descriptions of your work often refer to the colours and natural landscape of Brazil. Are these references to your home country deliberate?
The first studio I had was in the same neighbourhood as the botanical gardens in Rio de Janeiro, and so I was constantly surrounded by nature – I think that’s why there are so many tropical colours and so much green in my work. After I became more internationally recognised, it was even more important for me to establish a sense of identity that was tied to home. I’m definitely very attached to my country – I’ve never thought about leaving Brazil because all my friends and family are there.

Goa (2017), Beatriz Milhazes. Photo: © Pepe Schettino; courtesy White Cube. © Beatriz Milhazes

Given the wide range of mediums that you use, do you have a creative philosophy that applies to all of them?
My work centres on the paintings – they’re sort of how I think, and they’re also the most energy-consuming and require the most focus. My collages take up a lot of time, but sourcing the materials is a more varied process. I collect sweet wrappers, silkscreen and holographic papers, and I piece them together.

I’d say that the use of colour is a characteristic that unites my work, which is funny because when I first started out all I wanted to use was white. Now, colour is a way for me to create contrast, drama and mystery. Every work I create is a mathematical dream and colours are a way of emphasising that.

‘Beatriz Milhazes: Rio Azul’ is at White Cube, Bermondsey, until 1 July.

By Amandos Ong, Reprint from Apollo magazine, 24 April 2018, © 2018 Apollo Magazine.

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Vincent van Gogh: Undergrowth with two figures, 1890. Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches (49.5 x 99.7 cm), Cincinnati Art Museum.

Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) love of nature is well known from his exuberant landscapes of fields of grain, mountainsides, turbulent skies, orchard blossoms to the more humble vignettes of birds, butterflies and lilies. This masterpiece from the Dutchman’s late period was created in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, in June 1890.

It is little known that the marvelous “Undergrowth With Two Figures” is a pendant piece to “Wheat Fields near Auvers,” June 1890, located in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere of Vienna, Austria. Vincent documents the pendant artworks in a letter to his brother Theo, dated June 24 or 25, 1890. Vincent was to die a tragic and controversial death just days later on July 29, 1890.

Today, I Require Art’s store opens. Eight premium prints produced with our exclusive print partner, Art Authority, of Ashland, OR.

We thought you might like to read some background on each of the works now available.

Questions? Comments?
We want to hear from you!

David Park: Rehearsal, 1949-1950. Oil on canvas, 46 x 35.75 inches, Oakland Museum of California.

David Park (1911–1960), in 1949, decisively abandoned his work within the prevailing abstract expressionist art movement with a trip to the Berkeley dump. At the time, he was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Park was the first to reassert figurative work and scenes from everyday life into his work. This artistic directional shift from the abstract to the representational, known collectively as the Bay Area Figurative movement, was later pursued by Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Paul Wonner and others in the Bay Area.

Pauline Napangardi Gallagher: Mina Mina Jukurrpa (Mina Mina Dreaming), 2017. Acrylic on Belgian linen, 152 x 122 cm. 1798/17ny. © Warlukurlangu Artists.

Pauline Napangardi Gallagher (b. 1952), paints Pikilyi Jukurrpa (Pikilyi Dreaming) and Mina Mina Jukurrpa (Mina Mina Dreaming), Dreamings that relate to her land, its features and animals.

At first glance, contemporary Aboriginal paintings appear to be straightforward abstract artworks, but they derive from the rich heritage of their forbears. Stories passed down over countless generations of their origins, traditions of body painting and notable geographical features of their territories translate into intricate, vibrant visual patterns.

Marcus Jansen: Typewriter, 2007. Oils on paper, 14 x 17 inches. © Marcus Jansen.

Marcus Jansen – New Horizons. Mit den Waffen der Malerei
February 10 – April 15, 2018
Museum Zitadelle Berlin, Germany
Bastion Kronprinz

I Require Art:
No. 44, Interview: Marcus Jansen

Jansen’s first museum introduction to Europe was at the Triennale di Milano Museum in 2016 where the artist was noted in the Italian press as one of the top ten shows to be seen in Italy alongside Basquiat and Monet. Jansen has also been referred to as “one of the most important American painters of his generation” by two time Documenta Kassel curator, Prof Manfred Schneckenburger in his recently published book “Marcus Jansen. Aftermath” (Hirmer Publishers, Munich).

Odilon Redon: The Buddha, c. 1905. Pastel on paper, 90 x 73 cm, Musée d’Orsay.

The symbolism of Odilon Redon (1840-1916) transports. His mind — magical. Whether roaming through the peculiar and compelling dark world of oddities in his “noirs,” or his later works of sublime floral vistas, the imagery of his subjective visions intoxicates. Late in his career, a number of works reflect a strong interest in Japonism and eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Here, we see one of his several exquisite visions of the Buddha, c. 1905.

Jacob Lawrence: Migration Panel 18, Migration Series (60 panels), 1941. Tempera on gesso on composition board, 18 x 12 inches, Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), grew up in Harlem at a time when the neighborhood, stories of individuals and of a people, mattered. No doubt, this formative period during the Harlem Renaissance for Lawrence, as a young man and as an artist, charted his direction.

“The community [in Harlem] let me develop … I painted the only way I knew how to paint … I tried to put the images down the way I related to the community … I was being taught … to see.” (Jacob Lawrence)

He often painted in series. His Migration Series (1940-1941) of 60 panels is the story of the massive movement of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II. The Museum of Modern Art has granted rare permission to issue a print edition of Migration Panel 18.

“To me, migration means movement. There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty. ‘And the migrants kept coming’ is a refrain of triumph over adversity. If it rings true for you today, then it must still strike a chord in our American experience.” (Jacob Lawrence)

Bob Parent: Charlie Parker with (l-r) Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes and Thelonious Monk, The Greatest Night in Jazz?, Open Door, New York, NY, September 13, 1953.

On September 13, 1953, bebop legend Charlie Parker, was on the bandstand at the Open Door in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes shared the stage with the great Bird in what many have said was the greatest night in jazz. Bob Parent’s landmark photograph is available here.

Hans Hofmann, Summer Night’s Bliss, 1961. Oil on canvas, 84 x 78 inches, The Baltimore Museum of Art. © Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Such a colorist! Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), notable as an abstract artist, influential teacher and author, is the progenitor of the “push and pull” technique of manipulating color, form and texture to create the illusion of depth, space and movement eschewing representational forms.

“Art is to me the glorification of the human spirit, and as such it is the cultural documentation of the time in which it is produced.” (Hans Hofmann)

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“How Egg Tempera Painters Crack the Mystery of the Perfect Yolk,” By Karen Chernick

“How Egg Tempera Painters Crack the Mystery of the Perfect Yolk”

‘Just in time for Easter and Passover, we’ve hatched a practical guide to the centuries-old egg-based paint.’

By Karen Chernick

What would Easter be without the decorated egg? Powder blue, rose pink, and daffodil-yellow ovals have become synonymous with the springtime holiday, and painting or dyeing the white canvas of egg shells has reputedly been a popular tradition since the Middle Ages. Eggs are also a fixture on Passover Seder plates, symbolizing a sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem.

But there’s also a centuries-old artistic tradition of painting using the eggs themselves. Egg tempera was a ubiquitous technique during the early Italian Renaissance, when it was considered the standard for portable easel paintings. Botticelli, Raphael, and Andrew Wyeth all painted with tempera. Today, the quick-drying medium, which employs a 50/50 blend of egg yolk and color pigment, is mostly in use by a brave few contemporary practitioners (who must not mind the smell of aging eggs in the studio).

These seasoned artists know what to look for in the perfect paint-worthy egg. Some of them, such as Mary Frances Dondelinger, have been known to use hundreds of eggs a month. Others are regulars at particular farmers’ markets, or swear by a specific brand of store-bought eggs. Just in case you’re not able to raise your own hen (which most agree is the very best option), here’s your guide to sourcing the ideal egg, according to six contemporary egg tempera painters.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus,” tempera on canvas (c. 1486, via Wikimedia)

1. Do you want to eat it?

If it doesn’t look appetizing to eat, it probably isn’t — and shouldn’t be used for painting, either. “The best eggs for egg tempera are fresh and healthy,” says Miranda Gray, a New-Mexico based painter. “The eggs that you would most want to eat yourself are the eggs that work best for egg tempera.”

Robin-Lee Hall, a UK-based artist, agrees: she buys the same eggs for her studio and her refrigerator. A loyal customer of a British brand called Burford Browns, Hall says, “They make delicious creamy scrambled egg.”

2. Is it fresh?

The fresher the better, for eggs and most perishable ingredients. But how far do you take that recommendation? “I heard of one painter who caught the eggs before they hit the nest to get the freshest and warmest eggs for painting,” says Mary Frances Dondelinger. Of course, not everyone has a flock of hens at their disposal.

Robin-Lee Hall, “Joy,” egg tempera on gesso panel, 28 x 24 inches (courtesy of the artist)

Beyond the sell-by date on a store-bought egg carton, you can gauge whether an egg is fresh by the strength of the shell, and how easy it is to separate the yolk from the egg white. “If the egg is old or sickly, the membrane between the yellow and white is not strong, the shell is thin and weak, and it is very difficult to separate the egg,” Gray says.

3. What color is the yolk?

It’s worth shelling out the extra money for richer-colored yolks. As a culinary ingredient, yolks are a binder that adds a creamy texture to dishes. In tempera painting, they are the glue that keeps pigment particles together. “The cheapest eggs have the palest yolks,” says Rosemary Antel, a Seattle-based landscape painter. “Pastured hens and organic eggs have yolks that are almost red-orange.” Hall buys Burford Browns because of their “bright rich cadmium orange yolk,” she says. “It needs to be rich and thick.”

4. Free-range from the farmers’ market, or store-bought?

There isn’t a consensus among egg tempera painters on whether farm-fresh eggs make a difference in the final painted product. “I have tried organic versus not, brown eggs and white, and shades between, and found it’s not of any significant difference,” explains Mona Conner, a tempera portrait painter. “It’s just about the freshness.

“For many years I bought store eggs for eating and painting,” says Ella Frazer, a Scottish-born painter now based in Florida. “I am now vegetarian and always buy organic cage-free eggs. I certainly haven’t noticed any change.”

Miranda Gray, “Yoda in Spring,” egg tempera on panel, 5″×7.5″ (courtesy of the artist)

5. Do you have to paint with chicken eggs?

Painters of a different feather may not use chicken eggs at all. According to Antel, Alaska Natives have a tradition of mixing salmon eggs with finely ground rock to create paint.

Among artists drawing from the European tradition, birds have been the egg-hatchers of choice, but chickens don’t have a monopoly on egg tempera. “There is talk of using eggs that have a larger oil content (emu or goose eggs for example) thus producing more brilliant colors,” says Dondelinger. “But when I’m using hundreds of eggs in a month I look for ease of access and I’ve had beautiful results with eggs from the humble chicken.”

Antonio da Fabriano II, “Saint Jerome in His Study,” The Walters Art Museum, tempera and gold leaf on wood panel (c.1450, via Wikimedia)

Featured image: Robin-Lee Hall, “Amber Still Life,” 10×12 inches, egg tempera on gesso panel (courtesy of the artist)

By Karen Chernick, Reprint from Hyperallergic, 30 March 2018, © 2018 Hyperallergic Media Inc.






” ‘National Geographic’ Turned to a Photo Historian to Help Reckon With Its Colonialist Past. Even He Was Unsettled by What He Found,” By Ben Davis

” ‘National Geographic’ Turned to a Photo Historian to Help Reckon With Its Colonialist Past. Even He Was Unsettled by What He Found”

‘John Edwin Mason, a historian of race and photography, spoke to Ben Davis about examining the famed magazine’s troubled history.’

By Ben Davis

After more than a century of covering the Earth’s manifold splendor and diverse peoples through distinctly Western eyes, leaving it open to charges of colonialism (if not outright racism), National Geographic has now turned its lens on itself.

The magazine’s special April issue is dedicated to examining the subject of race from a variety of angles: theories of the social construction of race, the racial profiling of black motorists, the present-day renaissance of historical black colleges, the mounting tensions triggered by the demographic shifts in the nation, and even Brazilian artist Angelica Dass‘s project “Humanae,” which pairs over 4,000 people from around the world with different Pantone color swatches. Yet National Geographic editor Susan Goldberg’s letter introducing the issue has made the biggest splash, with its blunt admission: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.

Given National Geographic’s status as an icon of mainstream taste and its role in shaping how generations have viewed the world, the magazine’s mea culpa has been something of an event. Over the last week, Goldberg’s letter has gained widespread media attention and been debated across social media–which makes sense, considering that the 130-year-old magazine also claims to be the world’s biggest social media brand, boasting a staggering 350 million followers across various platforms, and thus a huge ability to shape public conversation.

National Geographic’s self-examination chimes with a larger trend of legacy media properties reexamining their historical blind spots, including the New York Times’s recent project of writing obituaries for women overlooked by the Paper of Record in their time. And while the “Race Issue” has not been without criticism–particularly of its cover story, which uses fraternal twins who have different skin colors to make the point that race is a social construct–the sheer amount of attention that the gesture has garnered means that it is likely to inspire more similar gestures.

The research that formed the basis of Goldberg’s letter was done by John Edwin Mason, who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia, in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. A specialist in both the culture of South Africa and the Civil Rights photographer Gordon Parks, Mason was given the mandate to dig into the National Geographic archive to assess the magazine’s history in anticipation of the April issue.

I spoke with Mason about his research process, the historical context that shaped National Geographic, and how the social movements of the 1960s slowly transformed its coverage–just as, little by little, the social movements of the present seem to be reshaping its coverage today.

Photography historian John Edwin Mason. Image courtesy John Edwin Mason.

Let’s start with the question of why you think this has been such a big deal.

When Susan Goldberg asked me to do this, and told me about this special issue on race, I thought that it was going to get a lot of attention. It has really great people writing for it. I know some of the photographers, and they’re fantastic. And I also knew that these are people who are not going to pull their punches–they’d pull their story before they pull their punches! “This issue is going to make some waves”–that was my thinking.

So I went off and did the research, and the issue was published–and the focus has been entirely on Susan Goldberg’s letter. It’s not on the issue itself, which I think deserves a little more attention than it’s been getting.

And I was surprised. I didn’t reckon with how emotionally invested people are in National Geographic. I think it’s because so many of us, even those of us who grew up African American like myself, experienced this magazine as part of our childhoods. We consumed it pretty uncritically.

National Geographic took me places I’d never been and probably will ever go; it showed me strange things from around the world. I mean, I became a historian of Africa. Did National Geographic play some kind of role in that? Probably. I wanted to go to some of those places I saw in the magazine and meet those people.

Some of that popular investment has to do with the power of its photography, right?

I think it’s more than that. You know, when I was growing up, in the mid- to late-’60s and into the ’70s, the photography was OK–but it got much, much better later. The real allure was what they were showing.

I believe it was the first magazine to go full color.

For sure, the photography always sold the magazine. They were using color very early on, even when it was a very, very expensive process. Before World War II, before Kodachrome, National Geographic was dazzling, like Life only better in terms of the paper stock that they were using and the reproduction of the photographs. And humans are visual. We really, really like to look.

What was the brief that you were given?

It was really open-ended: Go into our archives, find stuff that has to do with the way that the magazine presented race, people of color, Asia, Africa, Latin America, to its readers; then come back and tell Susan Goldberg, the editor, about it.

And, look, I’m a historian. When a private institution like National Geographic says, “Come visit our archives,” that’s the best thing.

But going to their archives was important for the research, because I wanted to see the unpublished photographs. As you know, when a photographer goes off on assignment, he or she is going to come back with many, many more photos than ever get published. Looking at the slides or at the contact sheets or at the work prints can let you get a sense of what the photographer was seeing, what the photographer was not seeing, what the photographer was trying to make happen–because in the age before journalistic or documentary ethics were fully formed, many photographs were staged. You get a sense of how a visual scene was put together.

So I really appreciated the time in the archives. But I couldn’t spend all my time in Washington, DC. I had classes to teach and other writing to do, and so the bulk of the research I did was at the UVA library where, in bound volumes, we have each and every issue of National Geographic since it began publishing in the 1880s.

I couldn’t look at all of that material. So I said, OK, I’m going to poke around in the pre-World War II period–a bit. Poking around is too informal a term. I systematically read select years.

Pictured: Portrait of C.P. Scott (left) and H.E. Gregory. In a full-issue article on Australia that ran in 1916, aboriginal Australians were called “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” Image courtesy National Geographic.

You took a sample.

Yes. But I was really most interested in the post-World War II period, for two reasons. The first is that living Americans were shaped by the post-World War II issues, and the second is that the post-World War II era is when America emerges as the dominant world superpower. It is the era of the Civil Rights movement, which was likely to have an impact on the way that the magazine depicted people of color. It’s also the era of decolonization in Africa and Asia.

These factors would have to shape the way that the magazine shows the world–and they did, though not exactly in the ways that I expected.

To the general public, I’d say that the term “National Geographic photography” is already a kind of shorthand for a certain style of popular ethnographic photography. What was it that you found that surprised you?

National Geographic in many ways sets the standard for what I call reportage photography. That’s been increasingly the case since the 1970s, when there was a real uptick in the quality of photography appearing in the magazine. But there was always a general style of National Geographicphotography: National Geographic photography rarely has an edge. National Geographic photography rarely challenges the viewer.

You mean that it doesn’t give readers something that they wouldn’t have already expected from a place?

Things that they wouldn’t have expected in terms of exoticism or strangeness are OK. But things that they would not have expected in a sociological or political sense, not so much.

What I found was an absence that I didn’t expect to be quite so total. I was looking intensively at the period of decolonization. What I saw almost entirely missing was any sense that anti-colonial struggles were building and that nationalist sentiment was growing in Asia and Africa. I saw almost no signs of modern cosmopolitan Africans or the working class or the intellectuals who were driving these movements. I saw few signs of urbanizing Africa. I saw few signs of Africans making connections between each other on the continent or looking to anti-colonial and anti-racist movements across the globe.

Anyone who read National Geographic would have been gobsmacked by the emergence of new nations, and totally unprepared to understand why this was happening. I expected National Geographic to be ambivalent. I didn’t expect National Geographic to ignore these movements almost completely. That really was something of a surprise.

Those struggles were very much a part of the Civil Rights conversation in the US: Martin Luther King going to Africa, speaking about its transformation in his sermon “The Birth of a New Nation.

Even Richard Nixon was present at the birth of Ghana! Foreign policy elites were very concerned about courting these new nations. It was a complicated relationship, because Britain and France, the colonizing nations, were also our allies. Nevertheless, other media showed a strong awareness that these things were happening.

I know Life magazine very, very well, because I’m writing a book about Gordon Parks and I’m writing an article about Life‘s representation of Africa. Life paid a lot of attention. Not all of it good, but also not all of it bad.

I was just reading your essay about Life where you talk about how, in the face of the Cold War and Civil Rights struggles, the magazine’s tone reflected a kind of a compromise.

There was an uncomfortable ambivalence in Life. After all, Life was almost entirely produced by white Americans who had grown up and were comfortable with a very segregated society, and many had their doubts about the fitness of African Americans or African people and Asian people for self-government and self-rule.

On the other hand, Life was also full of people who were uncomfortable with segregation and who did believe that African Americans had gotten a raw deal and that maybe colonization had its problems. There’s a reason why the magazine hired Gordon Parks, right? It didn’t hire two Gordon Parks. He was the one and only African American on the editorial staff for a very long time. But at least he was there.

So Life was deeply ambivalent. With National Geographic, you don’t sense that ambivalence at all.

In fact, you see the enthusiastic embrace of European and American colonialism, because, by the way, we also had colonized the Philippines and Puerto Rico and Hawaii and the entire continental United States. National Geographic was very comfortable with the commonsense notion that the white man by right gets to dominate the globe, that rule by North American and Western European powers simply makes sense. This state of affairs was seen as the natural working out of the laws of human development that placed white people on top, and especially Western Europeans and Americans, who had a responsibility, at best, to lift the Asian or African masses out of darkness and into the light of civilization–because of course those peoples couldn’t do it on their own. They needed help and guidance.

So National Geographic is less ambivalent than Life, but actually less ambivalent in the direction of being more comfortable with colonialism?

Exactly. They embraced the colonialist vision of the world until well after World War II. I think that what’s happening in the ’50s is that they’re plugging their ears and shutting their eyes. They don’t want to know about colonization, and they don’t want to know about nationalist movements, like a child sticking his fingers in his ears and going, “La la la la la.”

“Cards and clay pipes amuse guests in Fairfax House’s 18th-century parlor,” reads the caption in a 1956 article on Virginia history. Although slave labor built homes featured in the article, the writer contended that they “stand for a chapter of this country’s history every American is proud to remember.” Photograph by Robert F. Sisson and Donald McBain. Image courtesy National Geographic.

Do you see this as a conscious editorial policy or an unconscious bias, or a mix of the two?

It’s a mix. It does make a difference that National Geographic came at a moment when the US was becoming a global power. It starts in the late 19th century, the era of America building an overseas empire. It is also the time when elites in Western Europe and North America divided the world into the white world and the “darker races.” All sorts of foreign relations were racialized; they only cease to be so with the coming of the Cold War.

The people who put out National Geographic were intimately connected to the world of corporate and political elites. National Geographic and its editors courted presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, and were sometimes related to them.

They were also fabulously wealthy. National Geographic‘s longtime editor [Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, editor from 1899-1954] was Alexander Graham Bell’s son-in-law. Graham Bell had made pots and pots of money through his telephone monopoly. Another longtime editor [Melville Bell Grosvenor, editor from 1957-67] was the son of the son-in-law. So it’s almost a family concern for a long time, and they were very wealthy and very elite and very comfortable in those worlds.

Part of the change in National Geographic that begins in the late ’60s early ’70s is due to an editorial change. Although, part of it was also that the Civil Rights movement and decolonization were finally catching up with it.

South African goldminers were “entranced by thundering drums” during “vigorous tribal dances,” a 1962 issue reported. Photograph by Kip Ross. Image courtesy National Geographic.

Susan Goldberg mentions the two stories about South Africa, one from 1977 and one from 1962 in which Apartheid isn’t mentioned at all.

The ’62 article is appalling in so many ways. It sees South Africa only through the eyes of white South Africans; it is not at all critical of Apartheid, notoriously one of the most brutal forms of white supremacy the world has ever known; and it comes more or less right after the Sharpeville Massacre, where 69 people at a peaceful nonviolent protest were shot and killed by the police, and many others were wounded. It comes at a time when the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa is global news. Nelson Mandela’s name is well known. The African National Congress is a well known freedom movement.

I can’t help but keep drawing parallels with Life. Life had a very strong anti-Apartheid article [“South Africa and Its Problem“] that was almost entirely done by Margaret Bourke-White in 1950. Bourke-White was a really good journalist who doesn’t get the credit she deserves. She went to South Africa, and she was horrified, really horrified by what she saw. I’ve read the letters that she wrote after her trip. Flames come off the page. The Lifemagazine photo essay doesn’t have that anger, because the editors didn’t publish the stronger photos, but Bourke-White’s essay is still really intense and it stands up after 50 years. I mean, it says what South Africa was all about: racial oppression and class exploitation. It’s really something, almost neo-Marxist.

Then, after the Sharpeville massacre, Life did two stories. The first one was just about the horror of the event, with really powerful Ian Berry pictures of people fleeing for their lives. A week later they published Peter Magubane’s famous funeral picture of just rows of caskets, with Anglican priests saying prayers over them.

I think this is a really important point: It’s not just that National Geographic reflected the blindnesses and default white view of its time. It was actually behind the times, even relative to its peers.

I’ve listened to interviews with the National Geographic photographers. Some were completely on board with the way that that National Geographicoperated and saw the world, and you’ll hear them describing going out on assignment and looking to take pictures that showed people living a life that might have been lived 500 years ago. They consciously wanted to place their subjects in this timeless unchanging past.

But you’ll hear other interviews with the National Geographic staff photographers who would say, “Man, we hated that shit.” In fact, I heard one recently speaking about that 1962 article. The photographer essentially says that it was shameful, and that the staff at the time was aware. He says, “We were young, we were rebellious, but we were being edited by old white guys”–and, of course, they’re all white guys, but their editors were old men in their 60s.

There was a sense of generational conflict going on, of internal dissent. I tend to talk in sweeping terms about National Geographic‘s corporate culture, but it’s important to say that there was internal dissent.

In fact, if we were looking for the changes in the 1970s, it may be also a generational change. In the ’70s, there was a new editor-in-chief and I’m sure new subordinate editors, and I think that undercurrent of dissent is what begins the process of change.

Did your brief end in the ’70s essentially?

No, I took it up into the 21st century.

And you do see a shifting in the magazine over time?

I mean, it’s gradual, and sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back, like all change. The magazine in the ’70s is not what it was in the ’60s. The same thing can be said about the ’90s and into the present.

Susan’s letter is not the start of something; it’s a culmination of changes that have already happened. It’s making explicit the critique of the magazine, where I think the magazine has been privately or implicitly critiquing itself for some time now.

The challenge for the magazine going forward is: now what do you do?

Featured image: April 2018 issue of National Geographic, a single topic issue on the subject of race. Courtesy of National Geographic.

By Ben Davis, Reprint from Artnet, 21 March 2018, (c) 2018 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.