Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquires 250 works for permanent collection
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Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquires 250 works for permanent collection
Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900), View on the Magdalena River, 1857. Oil on canvas, 23 ¾ × 36 in. (60.33 × 91.44 cm). The J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art; The Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund by exchange; and The Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund by exchange.

RICHMOND, VA.- The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts announced a number of new significant acquisitions to its collections, including works by Nick Cave, Frederic Edwin Church and Hale Woodruff. In addition to several other notable acquisitions this quarter, the purchase of Frederic Edwin Chuch’s View on the Magdalena River allows VMFA to greatly enhance the museum’s holdings of one of the most important American landscape painters of the nineteenth century. The gift of Nick Cave’s Untitled (Soundsuit) and the purchase of The Banjo Player, an early canvas by Harlem Renaissance painter Hale Woodruff, reflect VMFA’s strategic plan goal to bolster significantly its collection of works by African-American artists.

“We are thrilled to add these wonderful works of art to VMFA’s collection,” says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges. “The Church and Woodruff represent transformative additions to the American art collection, while Bill and Pam Royall’s gift of Nick Cave’s Untitled (Soundsuit) is the latest in a series of landmark donations that they have made to the museum’s collection of Modern and Contemporary Art. Their commitment to living African-American artists dovetails perfectly with our strategic plan and we are immensely indebted to their extraordinary vision and generosity.”

Nick Cave, Untitled (Soundsuit)
Born in Fulton, Mississippi, Nick Cave studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute concentrating in fiber and design. Since emerging on the contemporary art scene, he has had numerous exhibitions in the United States and abroad. Cave’s iconic Soundsuit has been generously donated by Richmond-based collectors Pam and Bill Royall and is the first work by Cave to enter VMFA’s permanent collection.

"Nick Cave is one of the most iconic artists of his generation,” says Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “His Soundsuits have reshaped how art and movement are inextricably linked. We are grateful to the Royalls for this stunning work which enables the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to remain on the forefront of the contemporary art landscape."

Soundsuits are elaborate and wearable sculptures that the artist began making in 1992. Comprised of a variety of materials that include fabric, sisal, human hair, buttons, sequins, feathers, wire and accumulated objects, these suits are made to be worn and their title relates to the noise made when they move. As a former dancer and choreographer, Cave has historically activated these objects through live and filmed performances. Whether static or in motion, the Soundsuits bear some resemblance to African ceremonial costumes and masks.

Although the Soundsuits appear vibrant and joyful, they began as a response to the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992. As an African-American man, Cave felt particularly vulnerable after this incident of police brutality and the first Soundsuits can be understood as a form of protective body armor. By 2011, when Cave made the Soundsuit that has been given to VMFA, these full-body outfits had become increasingly elaborate and exuberant. VMFA plans to acquire more Soundsuits in the future, along with Cave’s videos of these human shaped assemblages in motion, so that this example can be placed in context and fully understood as both a sculpture and performative piece.

Frederic Edwin Church, View on the Magdalena River
VMFA’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to acquire an important landscape painting by Frederic Edwin Church, a leading member of the Hudson River School. This important painting relates to the artist’s 1853 journey through present-day Colombia and Ecuador. Replete with the exotic flora and fauna that Church viewed firsthand, View on the Magdalena River is an exquisitely composed landscape that depicts no one specific site, but rather is a pastiche of rivers, grasslands, and the mountainous terrain of South America. While the painting echoes the viewpoint of a traveler in an exotic land, it also includes themes as wide ranging as natural history, the presence of the divine, and the “civilizing” hand of colonial settlements. The painting balances the artist’s interest in depicting observable, exotic locales with the unifying sense of a divine ecological order represented in the various vignettes within the painting. When Church debuted the painting in 1857 at the Annual Exhibition of the National Academy, one critic remarked, “View on the Magdalena … is one of the freshest, and sweetest, and most seducing pictures of the exhibition.”

Hale Woodruff, The Banjo Player
Hale Woodruff, the celebrated African-American painter, printmaker, and educator, studied at the John Herron Institute in Indianapolis and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, before completing his education at the Académie Scandinave and the Académie Moderne in Paris in the late 1920s. He painted The Banjo Player at the end of this formative period in Paris.

Woodruff’s painting may evoke for some viewers the vexed history of minstrelsy (in which banjo music figured prominently), but the canvas actually takes many significant steps in elevating the instrument’s symbolism from its previous negative connotations. Indeed, the subject matter of Woodruff’s painting harkens to the example set by Henry Ossawa Tanner’s already canonical painting, The Banjo Lesson, which ennobles the instrument as an agent of education and familial bonding.

The acquisition of Woodruff’s richly painted The Banjo Player provides a culturally illuminating context for the many American Impressionist paintings at VMFA featuring players of stringed instruments—including Thomas Wilmer Dewings’s The Lute from the James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin Collection, and Romare Bearden’s Three Folk Musicians, a monumental collage painting that the museum acquired in 2017.

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