The Seattle Art Museum explores the inherent fallacy of art’s historical record with its current exhibition, Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is noted famously to have said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Incontrovertibly,  dominant cultures or regimes always attempt to shape the narrative of history — both immediate and recessed — to place themselves in the strongest or most flattering light.

The tradition of historical painting emerged in Europe during the Renaissance. Works usually depicted a moment from a well-known historical or mythological story, and often employed highly romanticized imagery. Paintings from the genre were generally quite large in scale and included multiple characters in each scene.

Souvenir I, (1997) by Kerry James Marshall. Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

“Souvenir I,” Kerry James Marshall, 1997 (Courtesy: Seattle Art Museum)

Artists who work worked in the genre, including Jacques-Louis David and Eugene Delacroix, usually were commissioned by the ruling or wealthy class patrons for the purpose of forwarding a specific, crafted historical narrative.

These works became the lens through which following generations view the past, yet what is left as historical record has a peripheral relationship with objective truth, which is a complex mosaic of infinite perspectives. Very often, perspectives from those who held little power were not included, and their very existence was essentially erased from the historical record.

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), by Robert Colescott. Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

“George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” page from an American history textbook, Robert Colescott,1975 (Courtesy: Seattle Art Museum)

The works of SAM’s featured exhibition artists, which represent three generations of African-American experiences and perspectives, address this incomplete historical narrative in distinctively different ways.

California-born Colescott, who died in 2009 at age 83, taught art in Egypt and France after serving in World War II. He brought this international perspective to his large-scale works, which often play on paintings of European masters and offer a satyrical edge.

amika sur on chaise longue avec Monet (2012) by Mickalene Thomas. Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

“Tamika sur on chaise longue avec Monet,” Mickalene Thomas, 2012 (Courtesy: Seattle Art Museum)

Themes that recur in Thomas’ work includes race, feminism and sexuality from a contemporary perspective. Chicago-based Marshall creates complex tableaus that reference political and social elements.

Figuring History opens a door into a labyrinth of questions,” said Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of Modern & Contemporary Art“Who writes history? Who is present in its accounts? But, also, how do we square, reassess and go forth with the artistic, social, and political histories that we have all inherited? These artists and their work speak about the past as much as the present.”

The exhibition was organized by SAM, located at 1300 First Ave. in downtown Seattle, and runs through May 13.

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