- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2020

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - In 1952, while a student at La Esmeralda, Mexico’s national school of art, American artist John Wilson (1922-2015) painted a powerful mural that he titled “The Incident.” The fresco depicted a scene of a racial-terror lynching at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, as witnessed by a young African-American family.

The mural, executed on an exterior wall at street level, was intended to be temporary.

But its commanding composition prompted renowned Mexican social realist painter David Alfara Siqueiros, then head of Mexico’s department for the protection and restoration of murals, to advocate for its protection.

On Jan. 17, the Yale University Art Gallery will present “Reckoning with ‘The Incident’: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural.” The exhibit will bring together nearly all of the known preparatory sketches and painted studies for the fresco, as well as related drawings and prints from a variety of institutions and private lenders.

As for the mural itself, however, it no longer exists.



“The Incident” was likely created on an exterior wall of La Esmeralda, the national school of art in Mexico City, where Wilson was studying, explained Elizabeth (Lisa) Hodermarsky, Yale University Art Gallery’s acting head of prints and drawings.

“The situation was that each student had the opportunity to realize a mural, which would remain for a short period of time and then be plastered over to provide a blank slate for the next student’s project,” she said via email.

However, when Mexican muralist Siqueiros saw the Wilson mural, he declared that it should be preserved and not plastered over.

“The mural remained intact until at least 1956, when the Wilsons left Mexico, and probably longer though we do not know until when,” Hodermarsky said. It may have been painted over or otherwise destroyed, she said.

Wilson was born in Roxbury, Mass., and died in nearby Brookline in 2015.

Yale will present Wilson’s preparatory studies in graphite, charcoal, gouache and oil.

As a young man, Wilson was drawn to Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and Siqueiros. He appreciated their commitment to create socially conscious art. He received a grant from the John Hay Whitney Foundation to travel to Mexico, where he studied from 1950 to 1956.

Wilson later said that he knew the subject matter for the mural lynching would not “change America.” For him, it was an attempt to “exorcise” the feelings he had carried with him since seeing photographs of lynchings as a child.

Inspired by the political and social activism of Mexican muralists and haunted by images of lynchings he had seen in newspapers as a child, Wilson revisited the subject of “The Incident” over many years as a way of grappling with racial violence

Wilson explored the intersection of art and politics throughout his career, always with an eye toward issues of social justice. His most visible work is a bust of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., which has been on view in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., since its installation in 1986.

In an interview with the Boston Globe just before its unveiling, Wilson said, “To me the eloquence of the piece is not only in the face, but in the rhythms of the gesture…. The head is tilted forward, as if to communicate with the viewer. I hope the sculpture will stimulate people to learn more about King, to perpetuate his struggle.”

Yale University Art Gallery acquired the 1952 compositional study of “The Incident” in 2000 and has been collecting Wilson’s work since then. Wilson said he was drawn to art in part by the omission of black artists and subjects on his trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“None of these people looked like me and just by omission the implication was that black people were not capable of being beautiful and true and precious,” he told the Globe in 1995.

Yale’s exhibition dovetails with the recent opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. These national monuments honor and memorialize more than 4,000 African-Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950.

Online: https://bit.ly/2uI2Umg

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