18 December 2018

William Morris and Kehinde Wiley

After Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama was unveiled at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2017, the already-successful artist received unprecedented attention. And, in a roundabout way, Kehinde Wiley’s success is also bringing more attention to the designs and general aesthetic of William Morris. This fall, in the first Wiley exhibition since the unveiling of the Obama portrait last year, eleven portraits of Saint Louis citizens are already drawing commentary in the news that the background designs of the portraits evoke the wallpapers designed and manufactured by William Morris. This new show, Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis, will be held at the Saint Louis Art Museum from October 19, 2018 until February 19, 2019.

Some of the references to William Morris wallpapers are more overt than others. The portrait "Robert Hay Drummond, D.D. Archbishop of York and Chancellor of the Order of the Garter" (2018) clearly uses motifs of the ogee tree and pomegranate that distinctly appear in the Granada wallpaper design (1884). Other references are more oblique: the painting “Tired Mercury” evokes the general dynamism of William Morris design and the distinctive whorls of flowers seem reminiscent of the Pimpernel wallpaper (1876).

These Saint Louis paintings are not the first time that Kehinde Wiley has looked to William Morris for inspiration. A few years ago, the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic appeared at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (in 2015) and Seattle Art Museum (in 2016) which included paintings with references to Morris and his manufacturing group Morris & Co. For example, the background design in Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness is inspired by the “Iris” wallpaper (c. 1887) designed by J. H Dearle for Morris & Co. Another painting from the show, “Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘The Economy of Grace,’” (2012) includes a background that copies the design of the Blackthorn block-printed wallpaper that Morris designed in 1882.
"Mrs. Siddons from the series 'The Economy of Grace'" and detail image of Blackthorn-inspired wallpaper
Photographs by author
Unfortunately, the exhibition panels of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic didn’t explore these connections with Morris very well, and the labels of the current show at the Saint Louis Art Museum also don’t mention Morris specifically, but connect the background prints to “international markets of textile production.”[1] I find this disappointing, and my sentiments are echoed in a published review of Brooklyn Museum of Art show which suggested that mentioning the origins of the backgrounds in Wiley’s paintings would strengthen the show.

It seems like there are several reasons for why Kehinde Wiley chooses to reference William Morris’s designs in some of his paintings. On one hand, Wiley’s compositions and designs are trying to draw awareness to the realm of history and art history, not only with the decorative motifs but the way the figure is represented (the female figure’s position in “Mrs. Siddons” turns looks away from the viewer in a way which reminds me of depictions of the penitent Magdalene by George de la Tour).
In past centuries, fine art was typically associated with white Europeans and refinement. Wiley wants to challenge the idea that fine art and statements of cultural refinement are limited to a specific race; he does this by referencing European artistic traditions in his portraits of black people. To help emphasize his point, Wiley draws inspiration from Morris’s wallpaper designs, since they are associated with taste and the high-quality production surrounding the Arts & Crafts movement. In the exhibition catalog for Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, Annie Paul explains that Wiley creates “decorative backgrounds [which are] inspired by the English designer William Morris, who wove images from botany and zoology into intricate patterns signifying taste and discrimination.”[2] It seems like Wiley occasionally uses Morris’s designs to reference English history and colonialism, too. For example, the inclusion of a Morris print in St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness references the past colonial presence of the English in Jamaica.
So, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black figures, which contain visual references to European history and European art, call for attention and help to create a new vision of contemporary black identity and presence. Holland Cotter, in reviewing a 2005 exhibition of Wiley’s work, asserted as much by saying that Wiley “is a history painter. . . . By this I mean that he creates history as much as tells it.”[3] And what would William Morris think about his imagery being utilized in this way? I think that he would be quite pleased: Morris was a socialist who wanted to bring about a change in the art world and society. William Morris felt like the arts, particularly the decorative arts, “were ‘sick’ as a consequence of the split between intellectual and mechanical work that occurred during the Renaissance.”[4] Perhaps in a similar vein, Kehinde Wiley seeks to bind together racial divides and “heal” stereotypical assumptions about what constitutes art and portraiture.
So when Wiley’s paintings are considered in terms of social unity, Morris’s designs are very appropriate. Art historian Caroline Arscott has analyzed Morris’s designs in relation to the social climate of his day, finding that the designs “imagine an overcoming of social contradictions in an allegory performed ‘through the twists and turns of plants.’ In this way his aesthetic stands as a powerful equivalent for the recovered wholeness of men and women, of their relations to their fellows and to nature.”[5] In many ways, Wiley is also suggesting similar themes of “wholeness” by binding different cultures together within his paintings. It isn’t surprising, then, that Wiley is inspired by designs of plants which repeatedly interconnect, wind, and bind themselves to each other. And it is even more appropriate, then, that the Saint Louis Art Museum is not charging admission for entrance to the current Wiley exhibition, so that the accessible venue can serve as a way to bring the community together.
- Monica Bowen, Seattle University
An earlier version of this post was written in 2016: http://albertis-window.com/2016/02/kehinde-wiley-and-william-morris/

[1] Wall text, Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri
[2] Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Kehinde Wiley,” New York Times, December 9, 2005. 
[3] Eugenie Tsai, ed., Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015), 146. 
[4] Steve Edwards, “Victorian Britain: From Images of Modernity to the Modernity of Images,” in Art and Visual Culture 1850-2010 by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, eds. (London: Tate Publishing 2012), p. 81.
[5] Ibid., 81.

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