Discussion by David C. Ward, co-curator of “Hide/Seek” and Historian at the National Portrait Gallery.
Carl Van Vechten 1880-1964 Critic, novelist, and photographer Carl Van Vechten was one of the most important promoters of American modernism and is best known for introducing white America to Harlem. Attracted by jazz, nightclubs, and a social world tolerant of gays, whites went north of 125th Street in search of a raw, pulsating, and "authentic" experience. Van Vechten’s delight in "earthy" or "primitive" black folkways drew the fire of black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois. Romaine Brooks wickedly referenced this assessment of Van Vechten as an exploiter by posing him against a "chair," which on close inspection contains barely visible images of young black men, seemingly imprisoned behind bars and gratings. The jab was doubled for art-world followers because they knew that the respectably married Van Vechten went up to Harlem to cruise for young men and find subjects for his homoerotic photographs.
"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" was on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, from October 30 through February 13, 2011 For more on the exhibit, visit the exhibit website at: http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/hideseek .
Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) Oil on canvas, 1936 Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut