The Paintings and Drawings of Clarence Major (University Press of Mississippi, 2019)

… Many of the paintings pivot on color contrasts, and Major uses simple but dramatic compositions to play these up. The posture and expressions of his bold figures add narrative …” – Cate McQuaid in a Boston Globe review: “Delighting in the Subject,” 18 August 2010, of the exhibition Configurations.

A handsomely designed hardcover with some 150 illustrations, The Paintings and Drawings of Clarence Major, the first published monograph on his works of art (there have been exhibition catalogues), asks us to pay the same attention to Major, the painter, as we have shown to Major, the poet and fiction writer, for the past fifty years.* And to consider the relationship between painting and poetry/fiction, and how they influence each other in the works of Clarence Major.

A 40-page autobiographical essay, The Education of a Painter, shows Clarence Major (1936-) to have been a serious student of art since the age of ten, when on a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago with a friend of his mother, she persuaded African American painter Augustus ‘Gus’ Nall (Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capitol at Richmond - a 1963 painting in celebration of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to end American slavery) to give some instructions in the arts to the young man who’s talent for drawing had been noted as early as the age of four.

Vincent van Gogh.  The many painters mentioned in Clarence Major’s essay form a veritable ‘Who Is Who’ in Western art, and Major has traveled widely in America, Mexico and Europe – especially Italy and France – visiting museums and art collections to study the works of the masters.  

Let us take a look at one of them, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).

Because yet another step towards deciding that one day he himself would be an artist, came when Clarence Major at the impressible age of 13 – given his first art monograph, on Vincent van Gogh, by his step-father – went to see perhaps the largest van Gogh exhibition (‘the man who had cut off his ear’) ever staged in the United States at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950. 

Clarence Major was particularly impressed by the drawings van Gogh made 1882-84 of workers and peasants, using the term “felt deeply,” words he uses again  in his poem Van Gogh’s Death:

“We climbed the steep stairway/ to the tiny attic death-room,/ more alive for doing so./ Are people talking about power of imagination/ when they say/ Christ died so we may live? // … / Everywhere people feel deeply/ and look closely and carefully at last things. // … // And we came down with his life/ all around us out there in the fields,/ and walked up past the church/ to the headstones planted close to the wall.” – From Waiting for Sweet Betty (Copper Canyon Press, 2002).

Figures and landscapes.  Clarence Major writes that he is “delighted” with the Boston Globe review of his 2010 exhibition Configurations at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (see the epigraph above) by Cate McQuaid, who also notes that: “The show features some raucous street scenes and an odd, existential narrative or two, but the focus here is on women … sensual and provocative, but not always available …”    

But even as Major writes “I had always gravitated towards figurative works. I felt more at home painting figures and I gained more satisfaction from doing so,” his landscapes (and cityscapes) are almost equal in number to his figurative paintings and drawings reproduced here, Major refusing to choose one to the exclusion of the other. (His ‘still life’ paintings would be a third group).

Clarence Major quotes the French painter Edouard Vuillard: “I don’t do portraits. I paint people in their surroundings,” and writes that a setting is more interesting than an empty space behind a figure, using often a pattern – like a wallpaper – behind his figures, reminding me of the photographs of Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) of black celebrities from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s to the 1960s, see Generations in Black and White (University of Georgia Press, 1993).

African American art(ists).  Major writes: “All my adult life I’ve studied the tradition of African American artists,” and he mentions several: Robert  S. Duncanson, Edward M. Bannister, Edmonia  Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Palmer C. Hayden, Archibald Motley, Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas, Ellis Wilson, Hale Woodruff, William H. Johnson, Beauford Delany (who’s work he saw on a visit to Delany’s friend, James Baldwin, in St. Paul-de-Vence in France), Lois Mailou Jones, Norman Lewis, Charles White, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Bettye Saar, and Sam Gilliam. 

But he would agree with Jacob Lawrence – of the Migration Series fame – , his college when teaching at the University of Seattle, whom he interviewed for Black Scholar in 1997, that – unlike African art – “African American art, in terms of style and technique, is indistinguishable from other modern art produced by artists in North America and Europe for the last 200 years,” if not of course always in terms of subject matter.  

Paintings as bookcovers.  Clarence Major’s use of his own paintings for the cover of his books since Confuguration: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998 (Copper Canyon Press) reflects a new confidence in himself as a painter: “By the 1960’s my styles and techniques were recognizable.” Saying elsewhere: “I try to paint what I feel about what I see rather than what I see.

The earliest work reproduced here is from 1971, the last from 2016. The great bulk of his drawings are from the 1980s, Clarence Major relying increasingly on oil and acrylic, sometimes reworking a drawing in oil. A small watercolor self-portrait, done in Venice, has been reproduced so many times in books, magazines, and online, Major writes, that “it seems to have taken on a life of its own” – see for example the cover for his novel My Amputations (Fiction Collective Two, 1986-edition).

Clarence Major has had 15 solo exhibitions, and paintings in more than 28 group-shows. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors for his paintings and writings alike. In 2015 he was given a “Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts” by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.   

UFI // 28 January 2020

* Major published the first of eleven works of fiction in 1969, and fifteen volumes of poetry, including two volumes of ‘new and selected’ poems, beginning in 1970. This year, 2020, will see the publication of The Essential Clarence Major: Prose and Poetry, prose including fiction, essays and autobiographical writings, according to the publisher, the University of North Carolina Press.    



Clarence Major writes, 9 April 2020:

Your review of The Paintings and Drawings of Clarence Major

Dear Uffe Sparre Fischer:

I liked your review of my recent book, The Paintings and Drawings of Clarence Major, so much I simply had to write to you and tell you how much. It’s a thoughtful and precise review. A rare thing these days. Congratulations! And thank you.

Sincere regards,                                                                                                                                     Clarence