The Georgia Museum of Art has four agriculture murals on display until Jan. 7.
The murals were painted in 1956 by George Beattie, an Atlanta-based artist. He painted a series of eight murals that hung at the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s building in downtown Atlanta until 2011.
The four that are on display at the museum address the state’s history of agriculture, beginning with a representation of the American Indians who originally lived in the region and two that address slavery.
When newly elected agriculture commissioner Gary Black took office, he decided to remove the murals from the walls of the building and said, “I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture.”
Rather than allow the works to languish in government storage, the museum offered to take them and mount the display to promote discussion about what the murals portray, how they portray it and why they are controversial. They are an important component of the state’s art history as well as of its political one, according to Paul Manoguerra, chief GMOA curator and curator of American art.
“As the official state museum of art and as an academic institution, the Georgia Museum of Art believes it is important to preserve this aspect of Georgia’s history,” said Manoguerra. “The murals present one artist’s attempt to address the complex history of agriculture in our state in 1956.”
The figures of the slaves are stoic, muscular and idealized—bearing more resemblance to the work of Michelangelo than to reality.
The faces of all the people the murals take as their subjects are generalized, and the American Indians (both men and women) wear only loincloths, exposing and sexualizing their bodies. One that focuses on the founding of the state of Georgia, as evident from its inclusion of James Oglethorpe, relegates American Indians to background material, literally receding from view.
In an effort to contextualize the murals, the museum has produced a series of short videos, in which academicians examine the works’ problematic approach to sensitive issues. James Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Research Professor in the department of history; Laura Adams Weaver, an instructor in the Institute of Native American Studies; Valerie Babb, professor of English and African-American studies in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Institute for African American Studies; and Manoguerra lent their talents to the effort, discussing the context for Beattie’s murals and the complex historical and cultural issues they raised in the 1950s and today. Those videos will be mounted next to the murals for visitors to watch and available on the museum’s YouTube page.
“I don’t think you learn anything by hiding history,” said Babb. “It’s very important to have conversations about why these panels were painted in the first place, as well as why they were taken down and what that reveals about the way we as a culture and a society have changed.”
Born in Ohio, Beattie studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art and was trained in a social realist style. He moved to Atlanta in 1948, where he taught at the High Museum of Art, Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture and Georgia State University.
He served as director of the Georgia Council for the Arts and created other murals in the Federal Post Office in Macon that also focus on regional history. Far from unknown, Beattie received a Fulbright award and had his work included in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution.
Manoguerra will lead a tour of the exhibition Aug. 29 from 2-3 p.m.