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Carl Van Vechten exhibit at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art views history through photo lens
Museum shares native son’s portraits of 20th century cultural icons
When Cedar Rapids native Carl Van Vechten turned his focus from writing to photography in the 1930s, he opened visual doors to a world his white contemporaries seldom saw, especially New York City’s Harlem Renaissance.
Fame and controversy have followed ever since, illustrated through “Carl Van Vechten: Man About Town,” an exhibition of 66 photo portraits on display from Saturday, Feb. 5, through May 15, 2022, in the three first-floor back galleries at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
If you go
What: Exhibition “Carl Van Vechten: Man About Town”
Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
When: Saturday, Feb. 5, to May 15, 2022
Hours: noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Monday
Admission: $8 adults; $7 ages 62 and over and college students; $4 ages 6 to 18; free for ages 5 and under
COVID protocols: Masks required, social distancing encouraged
“It’s a really fascinating exploration of a couple of things,” museum curator Kate Kunau said. ”On the surface level, it’s similarly beautiful, interesting and unusual portraits of some very significant luminaries from the early- and mid-20th century.
“It was just fun for me to lay out the show and see (artist) Georgia O’Keefe, (actress) Anna May Wong, (painter) Diego Rivera, (poet) Edna St. Vincent Millay — so just some very big names. And a lot of times, when you’re dealing with artists and writers and people who do behind-the-scenes work, you don’t really know what they looked like, especially in these pre-internet eras where there just weren’t as many images of them around. It’s really fun to see these creators as the subject of art,” she said.
“On a deeper level, I think that Carl Van Vechten’s reputation as a facilitator in the Harlem Renaissance is something — especially now — important to sit with.
“He was a bit of a double-edged sword. He did draw attention to a lot of luminaries in the Harlem Renaissance and brought them to a wider white audience that they might not otherwise have had. But he was also a white man otherizing and exoticizing Black culture.”
Immersing himself in the arts scenes first in Chicago, then in New York City, “he really set himself up as a kind of doyenne of these cultural societies,” Kunau said.
“He wanted to be involved in modern dance, and he wanted to be involved in the Harlem Renaissance. He had this fascination, especially with Black cabarets and nightlife. He sets himself up as a middle man between the white audience that he was primarily writing for, and these worlds of other cultures,” she said.
“I think ‘man about town’ is the way he saw himself and the position that he liked to create for himself.”
The black-and-white photographs, most of which measure 13.5- by-10.5 inches, are on long-term loan from the Cedar Rapids Community School District, and have been housed at the museum since the 2008 flood. Not all are hidden away. Six of Van Vechten’s photo portraits are on view in the district’s administration building, Kunau noted.
The collection was given to the school district in two parts, she added. In 1946, the district received 153 photographs from Van Vechten, nearly 20 years before his death in 1964. Then in 1996, the district received another 29 photographs from his estate.
The collection shows the “fascinating group of people he photographed and had access to,” Kunau said.
Even though his subjects generally posed for their portraits, not all of them were looking at the camera in a traditional manner.
"There are a number of his portraits where people aren’t smiling, and there are a number where people look exhausted or haunted or pensive, so he definitely did not insist on a cheerful expression in his portrait sitters. And maybe he didn’t engender one — I’m not sure what his studio presence was like,“ Kunau said.
“But certainly, not all of his portraits are looking out at the viewer. I was just noticing that when I was setting a gallery this morning,” she said on Jan. 27. “Many of his subjects appear lost in their own thoughts.
“And some are very different — some are engaging really directly with the camera. There’s a fantastic one of Cab Calloway where he’s dancing and leaning over backwards, so that’s really capturing him in the moment, which is wonderful. ... Joe Louis is really haunting,” she added. “It’s a real thousand-yard stare.”
Boxer Joe Louis and jazz singer Cab Calloway are just two examples of Van Vechten’s reach in various circles.
“He was shooting writers, actresses, composers, singers, dancers. It’s a lot of big Hollywood names — there’s Ethel Barrymore, Christopher Plummer, Laurence Olivier. Lots of major writers like Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Artists, singers — all sorts of different people,” Kunau said.
“It’s a really fun mix.”
Born in Cedar Rapids on June 17, 1880, Van Vechten reportedly couldn’t wait to leave his hometown for the siren song of the big city scene.
“He was not a fan of Cedar Rapids,” Kunau said. “He described it as ‘that unloved town.’ I think that was one of the nicer things he said about it. He was excited to get out of Cedar Rapids. I think he felt that he couldn’t really pursue his passions here — certainly not on the scale that he was able to in Chicago and New York. ... From what I’ve read, I think he just had higher aspirations.“
An 1898 graduate of Cedar Rapids Washington High School, he headed to the University of Chicago the following year to study music, art and opera. Those interests had been fostered throughout his childhood by his mother, Ada Van Vechten, who was instrumental in establishing the Cedar Rapids Public Library 125 years ago. His father, Charles, was a banker.
Chicago also is where Van Vechten began honing his journalism artistry, writing for the college newspaper, which led to a position as a columnist with the Chicago American newspaper after he graduated in 1903. According to the University of Iowa’s digital edition of “The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa,” by 1906, he had been fired because of his “elaborate and complicated” writing style and moved to New York City, where he became the assistant music critic for the New York Times.
In 1907, he took a two-year leave of absence to study opera in Europe, and while in England, married Anna Elizabeth Snyder, a longtime friend from Cedar Rapids. They divorced in 1912, and in 1914, he married Broadway actress Fania Marinoff. They remained married for 50 years, despite quarreling over his many affairs with men.
Van Vechten died in New York City on Dec. 21, 1964, at age 84, reportedly after spending a day in his darkroom.
Music critic, drama critic, novelist, essayist and photographer during a golden, influential age for the arts, “he really lived,” Kunau said.
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