What’s going on this month and next at UT’s Downtown Gallery is an event without any precedent that I know of. On display is a huge painting that was officially suppressed, deliberately hidden behind paneling, for four decades. Whether it’s a great work of art is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Most who saw it last weekend—those I spoke with, anyway—were awed by it.
When Marion Greenwood lived in Fort Sanders, she would not be mistaken for any other 45-year-old woman in town. In 1954, almost all Knoxville women did time in beauty parlors. Greenwood was beautiful, but hers was a serious beauty that would not brook the nonsense of curlers. She wore her dark hair in the pageboy style, a haircut for a woman who doesn’t have time to deal with haircuts. She wore simple clothes, fit to be spattered.
She was from Brooklyn, but had spent much of her adulthood in Mexico working with the mercurial, controversial Diego Rivera, one of the most famous muralists of the century. She’d spent time in Europe during World War II, in China during the Revolution, and in Haiti between juntas. Fascinated with cultures different from her own, she drew and painted people working, dancing, living.
In 1954, she ventured to another exotic locale. The University of Tennessee had hired her to move to Knoxville for a year as an artist in residence, and create a mural officially to be called “The History of Tennessee.”
There’s some mystery about why UT would have hired, to portray the history of the state, a known Yankee with radical associations, and one who had spent most of her career abroad. There’s also some mystery about why Greenwood would have taken the job, especially considering that she was known to enjoy a cocktail. In 1954, the only alcoholic beverage legal in Knoxville was 3.2 percent beer.
Somehow it worked out. We know Professor C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing, the big, burly abstract expressionist from Pittsburgh who six years earlier had started UT’s art curriculum, had something to do with it.
Greenwood worked for months, playing with ideas, using various locals as models. There are vague second-hand stories about her late nights; the few who remember her speak of her as a charming and animated conversationalist.
What became of her work is even stranger than what brought her here. Unveiled with much fanfare in 1955, her Tennessee painting rarely made the news during its first 15 years on the wall of the ballroom. The main complaint about it was that it overpowered the administrators who tried to give speeches in there.
But in May, 1970, when the campus was in chaos associated with the antiwar “strike,” the University Center was occupied by students. During a lawless four-day period, multiple buildings on campus were damaged, much of it seemingly at random. The ROTC center was firebombed, but so was the music building. After the worst weekend, the Greenwood mural was found defaced with gobs of oil paint. As that damage was assessed, it was attacked again with a knife.
No one claimed responsibility for the vandalism. Some concluded that the black figures on the West Tennessee section could be seen as stereotypical, jazz musicians and a black man with a bag of cotton, singing. One of the eight black figures depicted, he’s at the center of the anxiety. He’s wearing denim overalls and a straw hat, and he has a burlap bag full of cotton. Is he a slave? Could be. Or a sharecropper or other farm laborer at any time before the mechanization of the cotton harvest. In any case, at the moment we see him, he’s sitting down, taking a break, singing for a little girl who’s watching attentively. In the context of the mural, his singing is why he’s important.
UT restored the painting, keeping it locked in the ballroom or under guard until 1972, when the university covered it with paneling. For most of the next 41 years, visitors to the ballroom, from Jerry Rubin to Ronald Reagan, didn’t even know it was there.
Today, some are surprised that it doesn’t show anything obviously outrageous: nothing, that is, stereotypically stereotypical. Black and white, these are all working people, creative if not necessarily high-toned. These aren’t minstrel-show scenes, and it’s hard to point to any aspect of the painting that glorifies or excuses inequality. It’s true that the blacks are separated from the whites. They have their backs to each other, entertaining themselves within their own communities. Real life was like that in 1954. She painted the mural just months after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, when politicians were trying to sort out what that meant. Tennessee was still strictly segregated.
It’s one of those things you’ll just have to decide for yourself. I’m glad they’re showing it.
Greenwood died near her Woodstock, N.Y., home, in 1970, weeks before the vandalism. Her reputation has risen in the decades since. Last week, a Greenwood scholar from Portland, Ore., author Joanne Mulcahy, was in town, working on a biography of the artist. Mulcahy had studied Greenwood’s work for months in Mexico. “The Singing Mural,” as it came to be known, was one of the very few she’d never seen, and she agrees with Greenwood’s own assessment that it’s among her best.
It’s purely a coincidence that another of Greenwood’s best-preserved murals has hung in East Tennessee for 75 years now. A WPA project in the thick-fingered social-realist style, “Man’s Partnership with Nature,” a Crossville post-office mural on display in Knoxville for the first time ever, shows a working couple relaxing with a TVA dam in the background.
For the Tennessee-history mural, Greenwood chose perhaps the only theme that wouldn’t have started an argument. Music is the one thing Tennesseans of all races and ages and political weirdnesses agree to be proud of.
The Singing Mural has never looked better. It’s been cleaned, and that’s part of it, but I think it’s better lit than it ever was in the UC Ballroom. It glows.