Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 117 / Number 1
The Champion and the Corpse: Art and Identity in Richmond, 1950
- By Thomas Aiello, pp. 32–57
In the Spring of 1950, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond held an exhibition entitled American Painting, 1950. It was the museum’s seventh biennial exhibition of contemporary painting. Willem DeKooning, Arshile Gorky, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and many others exhibited at the show. So too did Hyman Bloom and Stuart Davis. Female Corpse, Rear View by the former and Little Giant Still Life by the latter sparked outrage in the Richmond community. Though the paintings were very different in their subject and scope, they shared the distinction of being foreign—they were, in one way or another, un-southern—and decidedly southern Richmond interpreted the exhibition as yet another intrusion by northern intellectuals into its preferred societal norms. That intrusion of the unfamiliar formed the core of the outrage. For the citizens of Richmond, the biennial constituted a threat to their understood conception of both art and society, but that threat traveled along many different trajectories. Disgruntled museum patrons argued over what constituted legitimacy and decency in artistic representation. They wrung their hands about the relationship between state funding and public popularity. Hovering over all of these doubts was a sustained fear that they were the dupes of a New York art world that was imposing a misguided and immoral aesthetic on the good people of Virginia. It was artistic outrage. But it was a fundamentally southern version of that outrage.