Making the Wright Connection

An Online Community for the Study of Richard Wright

Wright portrait installed in Mississippi Hall of Fame

Posted on March 27, 2011 | No Comments

NATCHEZ, MS – A new portrait of Richard Wright was unveiled on February 24th as part of the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration and permanently installed on March 27th in the Mississippi Hall of Fame at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson.  The artist is Katherine Buchanan.

Portrait of Richard Wright, by artist Katherine Buchanan

Click here for an article on the February 24th unveiling that appeared in the Natchez Democrat.

Read Jerry W. Ward, Jr.’s comments delivered at the March 27th installation in the Mississippi Hall of Fame below:

On the Unveiling of a Portrait of Richard Wright

Old Capitol Museum
March 27, 2011

In 1936, Richard Wright published his famous, gripping, and thought-provoking story “Big Boy Leaves Home” in the anthology The New Caravan. In the same year, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin published his influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Fearing that he would be captured and sent to a concentration camp, Benjamin committed suicide in 1940, the very year that Wright’s novel Native Son changed forever the perspectives we have of American society. Our unveiling of Mrs. Katherine Buchanan’s portrait of Wright and its permanent installation in the Mississippi Hall of Fame are related very much to perspectives on life and death and meaning.

In his essay, Benjamin noted that the work of art, in this instance the work of Mrs. Buchanan’s accomplished hands and visual imagination, has uniqueness and that it belongs to “the domain of tradition.” Indeed, the uniqueness of the work of art is bound to its authenticity, and it provides a different historical testimony than does a photograph, which can be mechanically reproduced. Benjamin’s insights about what is at once good and not so good about visual reproduction enable us to appreciate how special the oil portrait is, how special is the direct contemplation of the painting that locates us and the painting’s subject in place and time. “The painting,” as Benjamin took care to note, “invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations.”

Changed by a long history that demands our identifying the spectator as woman and man, we must rewrite Benjamin’s assertion to read “can abandon herself or himself to associations.” The obligations of non-sexist language allow our reorientation to the meaningfulness of our having a portrait of Richard Wright permanently in the Mississippi Hall of Fame at the Old Capitol Museum. We are occupying a moment in history.

The portrait obliges us to remember that ours is very much a time of mechanical reproduction, of mechanical reproduction of images and information. And should our scientists succeed in radical experiments with cloning, we shall be forced to witness the organic reproduction of feeling. Richard Wright was himself somewhat skilled in the art of photography and knowledgeable about the art of reproduction. His writings are evidence of how deeply he valued the power of the image. Wright did champion modernization (of which mechanical reproduction is a critical element) in some areas of human life, but he would never approve of the blind regimentation of feeling and that is often the false gift or Trojan horse of mechanical reproduction. The portrait urges us to not forget the uniqueness of humanity.

Buchanan’s portrait of Richard Wright invites contemplation in its depiction of a youthful man in a moment of contemplation and recognition. The portrait invites us to pause, to be still, to dwell in contemplation with Richard Wright and to view our world which is linked by narrative knowing to the world he knew. His image affixes itself in our visual memory and tantalizes us to read what is clutched under his right arm in the painting. But to know what his keen eyes are forever seeing and absorbing and evaluating, we must move from spectatorship to readership to hear what his writing is still saying. The portrait is our visual portal for entering and sharing the wisdom of Richard Wright.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
March 22, 2011


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