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Masklike sculpture commemorating Emmett Till inspires an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

"His Reward, Emmett Till" by Clarence Lawson proved so powerful curators built an entire exhibition around it.

A visitor is seen in front of “The Last Day of Martin Luther King,” a piece of artwork by Thornton Dial Sr. part of “Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century," an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on Friday, March 4, 2022. The show explores how artists have responded to tragedy, grappled with mortality, and commemorated those who have died.
A visitor is seen in front of “The Last Day of Martin Luther King,” a piece of artwork by Thornton Dial Sr. part of “Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century," an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on Friday, March 4, 2022. The show explores how artists have responded to tragedy, grappled with mortality, and commemorated those who have died.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

In a sheaf of small galleries on the first floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, American art curator Jessica T. Smith has laid out a quiet show that speaks to grief.

“Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century” consists entirely of works drawn from the museum’s own collection, many rarely seen, if ever.

It’s a somber exhibit, for the most part, which is not to say lugubrious — it looks at mourning and grief from many different perspectives and compels a visitor to see the mutable within the inevitable. The finality and violence of death offers up transformative metaphors — after thunderous armies and explosions come silence and absence.

“Elegy” explores the privacy of grief within a larger social framework and features a number of Black artists who clearly understand how loss infuses social and cultural experience.

The genesis of the exhibit, which opened in February and will be on view through July 24, can be found in the museum’s 2018 acquisition of a small, painted plaster sculpture by Clarence Lawson, an African American artist working in Chicago throughout much of the 20th century.

His Reward, Emmett Till, a highly stylized, masklike rendering of Till’s face, was made over a few years in the immediate aftermath of his infamous murder in Money, Miss., in 1955.

Having acquired the Lawson sculpture, Smith had to grapple with how to present it to the public for the first time.

“It was an emotionally charged, really powerful and important work of art,” she said on a recent walk through the first-floor galleries. “The question was, how to install it. It didn’t seem it would be right just to hang the piece on a wall and let people come upon it without providing an appropriate context, setting the scene, and preparing visitors. So that really started the process of mining the museum’s collections to look for other works of art that dealt with similar themes or that came from similar motivations.”

Culling the museum’s collection yielded an exhibition of several dozen works, many of them commemorative, many serving as memorials, and many by women and artists of color. That said, “Elegy” is “not addressing tragic events of the 20th century,” said Smith.

Nor is that the point.

“There’s no way that we could do that. It’s not an historic show,” she said. “It’s really focusing on artists who are grappling with the aftermath of specific events or greater themes of grief and loss, which are part of the human experience.”

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s monumental bronze, Malcolm X #3 (1969); Bob Thompson’s epic canvas, The Deposition (1961); Robert Motherwell’s somber Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1958-1961); Joyce J. Scott’s 1991 Rodney King Rodney King’s Head was Squashed Like a Watermelon (perhaps the most startling beaded artwork in an American museum); and Thornton Dial Sr.’s enormous sculptural canvas, The Last Day of Martin Luther King (1992), collectively hint at connections drawn by artists between private grief and public mourning, between sense of loss, commemoration, and collective memory.

At the same time, the exhibit very much presents grief as an intensely solitary experience, and even sets forth costumes of mourning, such as black veils, dresses, and even a black parasol from the Victorian era. Death seemed to be in fashion in the late 19th century. You are personally overwhelmed by sorrow, says this funeral fashion, and everyone should know it.

Lawson’s Emmett Till is something completely different. It is a plaster piece painted to resemble bronze, and it serves as an almost-delicate memorial, small and unassuming — not a realistic rendering, not a monumental statement, not a clarion call.

Emmett Till was 14 and visiting relatives in Mississippi when he went out to the store for candy. He was accused of flirting with a white woman at the grocery, and was subsequently beaten, shot, wrapped in barbed wire, tethered to a cotton gin, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River.

At his funeral in Chicago — which Lawson, the artist, may well have attended — Till’s mother insisted on an open casket, to show the brutality of the killing to the world. Back in Mississippi, an all-white jury acquitted those accused of his murder. Till’s death proved a galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement.

In Lawson’s rendering, Till’s abstracted face is quiescent, the calm center of the vast upheaval that his death inspired. Lawson called the piece His Reward, Emmett Till, “referencing the Book of Matthew that says, ‘Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in heaven,’” said Smith.

Lawson had a certain amount of success during his lifetime (he died in 1988), but no great reward, she said. His work is little known today.

“Many artists fought the good fight and did bodies of great work,” said Smith. But there was little support for preserving the work of women and artists of color. Black artists were largely working “outside the gallery system” and lacked patronage.

Much of their work, like Lawson’s, vanished, leaving “not much of a trace,” she said.

That leads to an important unspoken subtext of “Elegy”: making the invisible visible.

“Shining a light” on Emmett Till, Smith said, embraces the “commemorative role that the artist felt was so important and that inspired him to do the work in the first place.”

It also brings into focus “a sculptor who few people remember.”

The exhibition was conceived before the pandemic and before the Black Lives Matter movement renewed focus on the often-perilous existence of people of color in America.

“Death is part of life, it’s a theme that is with us all the time, but it felt particularly resonant” as the pandemic and social upheavals have continued, said Smith.

“I mean, I don’t know anybody who didn’t experience some loss over the course of the last two years. So I think it has taken on an added levels of personal connection for people.”