Eudora Welty, Writer and Observer and Her Photography in the 1930s

Eudora Welty, Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord, 1937.

Eudora Welty, Home By Dark, Yalobusha County, 1936 (Courtesy Eudora Welty LLC and Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Eudora Welty,Tomato packers' recess, Crystal Springs, Mississippi.

Eudora Welty, Child on the Porch, 1935-1936.

 

Wichita Art Museum
1400 West Museum Boulevard
316-268-4921
Wichita
The Passionate Observer:
Eudora Welty Among Artists of the Thirties

June 10-September 30, 2007

Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had.

— Eudora Welty

Both a compassionate observer of the world and a passionate image maker, Eudora Welty was a visual artist who used the camera much like she used language as a writer.

While Welty felt her primary medium was language, she continued to use a camera until 1950, when she left her Rolleiflex on a bench in the Paris Metro. Out of anger at her own carelessness, she never replaced it.

This provocative exhibition developed by the Mississippi Museum of Art with over 100 works features photographs, paintings, drawings, and prints by notable American artists of the 1930s.

At the center are Eudora Welty's dramatic photographs of Mississippi, Louisiana and New York during the Great Depression.

Welty's photographs from the 1930ss are placed alongside works by painters Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton; photographers Walker Evans, Berenice Abbot, Ben Shahn, Margaret Bourke-White, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and Dorothea Lange; along with Southern artists Walter Anderson, William Hollingsworth, Marie Hull, and Karl Wolfe, comparing her artistic motivations with their visual interpretations from this period.

Born April 13, 1909, Eudora Welty was a life-long resident of Jackson, Mississippi, until her death in 2001. She left only to continue her education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and to live in New York City for about a year, where she attended Columbia University.

Welty enjoyed the opportunities provided by New York such as museums and theatrical performances, but her father's illness motivated her return to Jackson in 1931.

Upon returning home, Welty reintroduced herself to the small community of artists in Jackson. Marie Atkinson Hull was the acknowledged star of the local art scene having studied at the Art Students League of New York and in Europe.

Shortly after Welty's return, a trio of younger artists would return to Jackson with equally serious intentions. All three were graduates of The Art Institute of Chicago, and all were in their home state of Mississippi to ride out the Depression. Karl Wolfe, Helen Jay Lotterhos, William Hollingsworth and Eudora Welty all became friends and mutual admirers.

The Depression deepened America's need to look at and define the national character. American artists nationwide focused on the activities and patterns of everyday life in America, some to critique it, some to glorify it, and others simply to show it.

This focus, collectively called the American scene movement, virtually produced an American self-portrait. Some of the artists were social realists, like Edward Hopper, whose works illuminated urban societal problems.

Others were Regionalists, the dominant group, intent on creating authentic American art through the experiences of rural America. Among the lead artists of this group was Thomas Hart Benton. Welty and Welty's artist friends in Jackson focused on the American scene, but none of them were on the hyperpatriotic bandwagon that the American scene movement evoked in many of the nationally known artists.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created within the Department of Agriculture in 1937, one of the New Deal programs designed to assist poor farmers during the Depression. The black-and-white photographs created by the artists of the FSA are a landmark in the history of documentary photography.

The work of five FSA photographers who traveled through Mississippi during the 1930s are included in the exhibition: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott. Like Welty's, their photographs are compassionate observations of humanity and show an understanding of place.

A southern sensibility pervades everything Welty made, and it is through her words and pictures that one shares in Welty's celebration of her home and her people.

Although these photographs were made during a period of widespread economic instability and often great personal despair, they evidence Welty's optimism about the human spirit and pride in the South. Eudora Welty, perhaps more than any other artist working during the Depression, was the ultimate passionate observer of her times.

Two exhibitions of her photographs were mounted in New York in 1936 and 1937 and many photographs have been published since then. Passionate Observer: Eudora Welty among Artists of the Thirties debuted at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Mississippi, in the spring of 2002.

Eudora Welty, Portrait of a Mature Woman, 1935.

Eudora Welty, Sunday Morning, 1931-1935, Gelatin Silver print, © Eudora Welty, LLC; Eudora Welty Collection – Mississippi Department of Archives and History.