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A unique opportunity is being presented to those lucky enough to be in Paris this February to discover (or rediscover!) the life and works of modernist expressionist artist Beauford Delaney who participated for many years in the artistic circles of Greenwich Village and the Harlem Renaissance, but spent the last 26 years of his life in Paris, where he died in 1979 in a mental ward at St. Anne’s hospital and was buried in something not too different from a pauper’s grave. [Attend the exhibition at Reid Hall! Evite]
Beauford’s Work and Life
Beauford is known for his extraordinary artistic gifts with both color and form – his stark reality based scenes and portraiture from his early days in New York, and both his abstract expressionist works and more primitive portraiture from his later years in Paris. His abstract works feature fluid splashes of color and bright depictions of Monet-like light. He painted portraits of many of his friends and acquaintances in the art and literary world – including Marian Anderson, Jean Genet, Pablo Picasso, his good friend Henry Miller and his “spiritual son” and possibly closest friend, James Baldwin – portraits that are, per his biographer David Leeming, “terrifyingly perceptive” (see Amazing Grace, A Life of Beauford Delaney, published in 1998).He even painted a portrait of a young Bobby Kennedy.
Beauford was born in Knoxville Tennessee, his mother a former slave and his father a minister. He was befriended by and trained under a local artist, then studied art in Boston and, at the age of 28, moved to New York where he became part of the art scene and attended salons in Harlem with the likes of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, as part of the so called Harlem Renaissance. He also hung around in Greenwich Village where he displayed in local galleries and enjoyed poetry and the jazz scene and developed friendships with Henry Miller, James Baldwin and Georgia O’Keefe. He fought through the issues of his race and his sexual orientation, as did many in the early part of the last century, but he also had another more destructive cross to bear – inner demons that he could not shake. As David Leeming states in his biography, Beauford was embroiled in a “personal and life-threatening battle with the ‘voices’ within himself that all too often escaped his inner world and took form as tormentors” – a battle that caused him to descend often into alcoholism and at the end to die in a Paris mental ward – but a battle that he often won by, per Leeming, using “form and light to create works of art that would transcend individual subjects and speak for themselves.”
The Exhibition and Related Events
Over 40 of his paintings and other works will be on display at Reid Hall in Paris in this very special exhibit aptly entitled Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color sponsored by Wells International Foundation and Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, along with Columbia Global Centers/Reid Hall.
The exhibit will run from February 3 through the end of the month. There will be a number of exciting events and experiences related to the exhibit, including a talk in the exhibit space about jazz and the Delaney works by spoken word artist Mike Ladd; a public screening – hosted by Columbia University – of a documentary about the African American experience in Paris; a round table discussion of Delaney’s work by U.S., Caribbean, and French art experts; an “Homage to Beauford Delaney” walking tour (which will include the two commemorative plaques placed in 2015 through the efforts of Monique Wells – one at Hotel Odessa on rue d’Odessa in the 14th arrondissement, where Beauford lived when he arrived in Paris in 1953, the other plaque at Hotel Le M where once stood the Mille Colonnes restaurant where Delaney frequently ate.).
Some key dates: Wednesday, February 3 – opening reception; Thursday, February 18 – round table discussion: “Multiculturalism in today’s art world”; Sunday, February 21 – Celebration of Beauford’s Life in Paris
You can sign up for updates about the show and the related events at the following site: http://lesamisdebeauforddelaney.blogspot.fr/p/reid-hall-exhibition.html
James Baldwin said of the artist, his very special friend:
“As for Beauford Delaney, it escapes the general notice that he has comprehended, more totally perhaps than anyone…the tremendous reality of the light which comes out of darkness. If we stand before a Delaney canvas, we are standing, my friends, in the light: and, if in this light, which is both loving and merciless, we are able to confront ourselves, we are liberated into the perception that darkness is not the absence of light, but the negation of it.”
Yes, Beauford Delaney was an immensely talented artist, but one who is even today not very well known – despite an occasional retrospective exhibit and his works being part of collections at many major museums, including the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Pompidou Center. Let’s hope this exhibition helps to spread the word further.
Monique Wells and Saving Beauford’s Gravesite
I first heard of Beauford Delaney in 2009 when Monique Wells told me she had formed the nonprofit “Les Amis de Beauford Delaney” to raise money to pay the rent on his unmarked gravesite in a suburb of Paris. Yes, because of the nature of entitlement to French graves, nonpayment for rental periods apparently can cause the remains to be removed and either placed in a communal grave or turned into ashes and spread somewhere else – and Beauford’s remains were at severe risk at the time.
I have to admit that I said “who?” when she told me of her quest – and that is the reaction of many when I raise his name.
Monique is a unique individual – a woman who is a serial entrepreneur; a writer; a time management and productivity coach; an expert on the historic African-American experience in France who gives talks and tours on the subject; a veterinary pathologist and toxicologist (with a masters in pathology and American and European board certification) who runs a consulting business in the field; a cookbook author who published a cookbook on down-home cooking with ingredients found in Paris; the creator of individualized Paris tours for Anglophones; and a woman with amazing organizational and planning skills who cares deeply about people and causes and has a gift for fulfilling any goals that she sets.
In 2009, Monique was researching the location of African American expatriate graves throughout the Paris area for an article, and after some research found that Beauford was buried in Thiais but that the payment to permit him to stay there had not been made since 1981 and there was a threat of exhumation.
She formed Les Amis de Beauford Delaney as a nonprofit corporation and set about raising money, first to keep him there through 2011, and then beyond that date; and then, to purchase and install a gravestone on the unmarked grave. There were some hiccups since after the payment of the “concession” to 2011 she was not permitted to extend after that – not being a family member. But then, after a two-year grace period, in 2013 someone talked the government into putting it under a special category for “notables” thereby ending the need for further “concessions.” She still has kept Les Amis alive for the rest of its stated purposes – this 2016 exhibition being in further fulfillment of those goals. The goals as stated in the first entry of the blog are:
1) Placement and maintenance of a tombstone for the grave of painter Beauford Delaney, who is buried at the Parisian Cemetery of Thiais.
2) Payment of the renewal fees for his grave.
3) Organization of commemorative or educational events in his honor.
4) Inform the press and the media of his life and accomplishments.
The reason Monique gives for these goals? In her words: “Beauford Delaney was an extraordinary man and an exceptional artist, and we want to do everything that we can to preserve his memory.”
The event is also co-sponsored by a U.S. non profit organization called Wells International Foundation, which was recently formed by Monique to foster the arts, study abroad, and “STEAM” (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). As part of the exhibit, a group of students from the University of Arizona are organizing the “Augmented Reality Project” – which will create an app that will allow persons attending the exhibition to view videos on their smartphones that provide information about the paintings. Mike Ladd will provide commentary for some of the videos – a project related to the WIF goals.
My only other involvement with Beauford Delaney since I gave a small donation to the cause in 2009 was to hear Monique speak at a gallery displaying his works in the West Loop of Chicago a few years ago. I was intrigued, and I have read her blog from time to time since then – which is how I first found out about this upcoming exhibition.
More About Beauford Delaney
I will be in Paris for two weeks in February. In preparation, I downloaded through Kindle the David Leeming biography and have read much of it. I highly recommend that you do the same. It is a very personal journey through Delaney’s life that is a great preparation for the exhibit, is easy reading, and makes you want to learn more about this complex and loving man who was so close to so many of the literati of the time but fought such a long an often losing battle against his demons.
Beauford Delaney was considered a warm and true friend by his many companions in Paris. James Baldwin called him “a cross between Brer Rabbit and Saint Francis of Assisi” and Henry Miller said that he was “an amazing and unique human being, a near saint.”
His friend, gallery owner Darthea Speyer said of him: “For many years, the sparkle of his gaze shone around him and attracted a crowd of friends, fascinated by this strong, if silent, presence. It was not his discourse that captivated, but a light that emanated from him and permeated everyone.”
When Henry Miller came back to Paris to celebrate his 80th birthday in January of 1972 (Delaney was 70 at the time) he invited a small group of friends to the American Cultural Center, including Delaney, to exhibit their works under the title “Les Amis Parisiens de Henry Miller.” Delaney showed a portrait of Jean Genet and his portrait of Miller – which Miller sent from California so it could be in the show. In the Leeming book, he tells of how Delaney sat in the room where his works hung and whenever a young person came by and complimented him, he said, “You are planting a seed. Give it time…and that seed will maturate and flower.”
Henry Miller wrote of his friend:
I think of Beauford Delaney first as a wonderful, amazing and unique human being, a near saint or better than saint, an individual who has known nothing but adversity, met it squarely, and rendered it null, not through success but by sheer pluck and indomitable fortitude… He has lived his whole life with but one thought in mind – to paint… Poor though he has been, he has never given the impression of being miserable. He has always given more than he received – that is to say, himself.
At the end, Beauford Delaney’s demons overcame him, to the point that he would let homeless take up permanent residence in his apartment in Montparnasse and would set out for an appointment and then wander elsewhere. He took a train once to visit Baldwin in the south of France but after getting off the train forgot where he was going and instead took a train right back to Paris. He was in a constant state of panic because of the changes in his Montparnasse neighborhood due to urban renewal; and finally was often incapable of remembering his own address.
He had always stated that he should be in a pauper’s grave. Nevertheless, James Baldwin had promised Delaney and himself that he would be buried in Montparnasse where he had lived. Sadly, Baldwin couldn’t pull together the funds to keep that promise – and neither could Delaney’s family.
Leeming ends his book by reproducing a poem dedicated to Beauford Delaney by the poet Richard Long:
The cycle. The Discovery. The Cycle
All gathers, comes to growth, fuses
The yellow, the green. The white paper
Catching, refracting the sunlight.
The palette fills with light and love.
The spirit lifts, rises.
The world floats, ascends.
(from “Ascending”, 1975; Richard Long)
Lead photo credit : Monique Wells with Delaney's work at the Centre Pompidou Paris/ photo: Discover Paris