Fall Arts Preview: Art Listings

Katya Kallsen

Sigmar Polke's "Untitled," on display at the Busch-Reisinger

Paul Robeson as Othello

Through Jan. 13. Pusey Library. Free.

When Paul Robeson first played Othello on Broadway in 1943, he was given a twenty-minute standing ovation. Robeson was the first African-American actor to take the role of Othello in over a century, and his hallmark production showed both how much progress America had made on issues of race and how far it had to go.

The “Paul Robeson as Othello” exhibit, opening Wednesday in the Harvard Theater Collection of Pusey Library, includes photographs and documents that demonstrate why some people believe that Robeson’s Othello was “the most important Shakespearean production of the century,” according to Harvard Theater Collection curator Fredric W. Wilson.

Before Robeson, while it was not uncommon for black actors to perform on Broadway, in America, the role of Othello had to be played by white actors in makeup. It was inconceivable that a black man could marry a white woman and kiss her onstage, even in a Shakespearean play. But as Robeson’s Othello toured the nation, playing to packed theatres in every city and amassing huge box office profits, audiences gradually became accustomed to the notion of the mixed-race pairing.

Robeson’s famous portrayal of Othello, Wilson says, also “turned the tide” for the role artistically, and it began to be unthinkable to have a white actor play the role.

Multimedia

The exhibit also makes clear the extent of the racial divisions in 1940s America.

One letter on display, from the President of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, informs Othello’s artistic company that the audience of the play would have to be segregated according to Texas’s Jim Crow laws. The production’s artistic company refused to perform before segregated audiences, and so Othello did not tour Baylor University, or, in fact, any Southern city. Even in Northern cities, segregation was such a fact of life that Robeson, although a national star, had trouble finding hotel accommodations in some cities.

—Lois E. Beckett

Forging the New: East Asian Painting in the Twentieth Century

Through Oct. 16. Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Free.

Those willing to venture past the flashier Degas show currently at the Sackler museum will have the pleasure of discovering “Forging the New,” the less extensive but no-less-rewarding exhibit currently on display. Despite the subtitle “East Asian Painting in the Twentieth Century,” the show itself is a broader survey of all kinds of art from China, Japan, and Korea. The display of pieces ranging from classic paintings to ceramics to textiles, comprising over 75 pieces of the Sackler’s permanent collection, creates a broad and valuable look at an oft-overlooked subset of art history.

The main thread running through “Forging the New” is conflict: between East and West, between old and new, between representation and abstraction; and the styles represented are largely depictions of individual artists’ reactions to these tensions. Utsumi Nobuhiko’s “Innerscape: Manifestation,” for example, propels traditional Japanese ink across a water-covered sheet of paper using a powerful dryer—combining an old medium with a new technique. Meanwhile, “Early Spring” by He Huaishuo features a classical Chinese subject matter and materials but uses the Western process of multiple drafts and revisions. That many of these artists, Huaishuo included, are émigrés—particularly from the Cultural Revolution—is unsurprising when one considers the personal trials necessary to create the evocativeness, power, and intensity bursting out of this not-to-be-missed exhibit.

—Elisabeth J. Bloomberg

New VES Faculty 2005-06

Through Oct. 6. Carpenter Center. Free.