Walk into the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) Reading Room and you are likely to miss it – a small, sepia-toned photograph hanging above the fireplace. James Van Der Zee’s Nude, Harlem is the first piece featured in the latest installment of WCMA’s “Getting a Read On” series. By virtue of it being such a relaxed and intimate environment, the Reading Room is an ideal place for salon-style discussions on serious topics – many may recall Basquiat’s Defacement, which was featured last year and prompted discussion on the topic of police brutality.
This latest installment, titled “The Body,” is no exception. In a recent conversation, Assistant Curator of Public Programs Nina Pelaez ’14 said that she hopes for Nude, Harlem and the two pieces to follow (Robert Mapplethorpe’s Lisa Lyon and Catherine Opie’s Renee) to be catalysts for conversations on identity, portraiture and, of course, the female body, which are all the more important in light of current events.
The photograph itself seems unassuming after a quick glance. Upon further inspection, however, the nuances begin to reveal themselves. For example, we see the fireplace casting a light upon the subject, like a modern Vermeer of sorts, but in actuality, it is a painted background. The staircase behind the subject is painted as well. Van Der Zee sets up these “studio shots” quite often, but this photograph in particular seems to be elaborately planned. Nude poses, such as this one, were often created for publication as calendar photographs. To ease concerns about nudity and adultery, Van Der Zee’s wife always remained present throughout the shoot. In this particular image, we seem to be observing a moment of both private reflection and immense vulnerability, which, in a strange way, makes the piece that much more riveting.
While the subject of this portrait is not specified, she is widely speculated to be none other than A’Lelia Walker, daughter of hair products tycoon Madame C.J. Walker and a favorite subject of Van Der Zee’s. Madam C.J. Walker was the first black female self-made millionaire. Her daughter, however, is rarely remembered at all, and when she is, it is as the prodigal daughter under whom the Walker hair care empire shrunk drastically. A’Lelia was known to throw extravagant parties featuring appearances from Harlem’s elite – Langston Hughes, Florence Mills and others. Although many dismiss A’Lelia’s soirees as exorbitant, they filled a crucial niche in the Harlem Renaissance: they provided a shelter of sorts for queer people at a time when the social scene was unwelcoming. While A’Lelia herself was not known to be queer, her parties became a haven for people to express their sexuality however they wished. Perhaps Nude, Harlem can be seen as an homage to her legacy.
Last Thursday, Assistant Curator Horace Ballard opened a discussion of the piece with a question: “How does a snapshot of someone become art?” This tension between “snapshot” and “art” seems especially present in a day and age in which photography is such an accessible art form. Van Der Zee, however, transcends this line, making Nude, Harlem seem all the more ethereal. We realize that small details of the photograph, such as the pipe extending vertically in the background or the feathers melding into the model’s hair, are actually carefully calculated in order for the viewer to lose sight of where the photograph ends and the painting begins. All of these elements – the lightness of her skin, the texture of her hair, the vulnerability of her pose and nudity – are manipulated to inspire conversations about race and class.
Born in Lenox, Mass., James Van Der Zee was actually a resident of the Berkshires, although he would come to be known as one of the most prominent photographers of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1969, Van Der Zee gained worldwide recognition when his work was featured in the infamous exhibition Harlem on My Mind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He strove to capture the personality, character and intrinsic beauty of his sitters; in works like Nude, Harlem, we see that his photographs were not simply “snapshots,” but celebrations of Harlem lives. His studio portraits were opportunities for black Americans to see themselves in positions of affluence and wealth that were, at the time, reserved only for white Americans in mainstream society.
Nude, Harlem, dating from 1923, is chronologically the oldest piece in this three-part installment. Yet, as Pelaez intended in the curatorial process, the relevancy of these pieces to current events cannot be ignored. From the #MeToo movement to the recent Women’s March, it is obvious that women – especially brown and black women – are still subjected to scrutiny of their hair, complexion, clothing (or lack thereof) and countless other attributes. Yet despite her nudity, the subject of Nude, Harlem has a certain look of tenacity in her gaze. Let us hope that this piece and this series – for which there will be another discussion this upcoming Thursday – can be a spark that keeps this tenacity alive.