In 1952, the African-American artist Edward Clark moved to Paris. Having studied at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clark was well-trained in color theory, and when he arrived in Paris, he enrolled in classes that let him further develop his talent in this area. Clark was born in Storeyville, New Orleans, but raised in Chicago.
Because he experience racism and discrimination in both the American South and North, when Clark arrived in Paris, he found French society much more tolerant. “I didn’t go to Paris to escape racism,” Clark was said. “But I got there and discovered racism wasn’t a factor. If I stayed in Chicago, it would have been a factor and it might have hindered my art.” Clark was not alone in his belief that France was a more open and racially tolerant society. Since the nineteenth century, African-American artists, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Palmer Hayden, Archibald Motley, and many others had been expatriating to France, in order to escape racism in the United States.

While it is true that African-Americans experienced less racism in Europe than they did in America, France was not always as racially-tolerant as Clark naively believed. For example, during World War II, in which Clark fought, the French were guilty of helping the Nazis persecute Jews, and even sent many French citizens of Jewish ancestry to concentration camps in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. In the years following World War II, the French also brutally suppressed uprisings in their colonies, especially in Asia and Africa. This was particularly true in Vietnam, which would become a major site to conflict during the Cold War and Vietnam War. In the case of Africa, the French tried to crush liberation movements in Algeria, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and most of their numerous colonies. At the same time that France was repressing its colonial subjects, it was also encouraging them to come to France in order to help the mother country with its falling birth rate. In France, many of these immigrants were treated like second-class citizens—a problem which still persists today.

Clark’s image of France as an oasis of racial tolerance was due to his status as an American. Still, while other African Americans living in France at this time, such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, had similar experiences to Clark, but recognized that the favorable treatment they received was due to their status as citizens from the most powerful country on earth. Clark seems have wanted to ignore this history and deny the fact that his artistic “freedom” was in many ways the result of his nationality.

While in France Clark experimented with a variety of painting techniques. The for which he best known is his “push broom technique,” in which he used a janitor’s broom to paint rather than a traditional paint brush. Like Jackson Pollock before him, Clark would drip paint on canvases laid down on a floor like. Once on the floor, Clark would push the paint, an action he calls “the big sweep” as he does in the work on view in this exhibition from his Montmartre Series. In this work, Clark uses horizontal bands of color that suggest speed, motion, and energy.

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