From the Archives: Eugene Hyde (1931-1980)

Eugene_Hyde_Bunch_Fruit_1959_NGJ
Eugene Hyde – Bunch Fruit (1959), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The Independence Generation

The years around Independence were, as the artist and critic Gloria Escoffery (1986) has argued, characterized by a combination of great ambitions and sometimes naïve idealism. The period was marked by the advent of a new generation of artists, most of whom had studied abroad. The three most influential among them were Karl Parboosingh, who had studied in Paris, New York and Mexico; Eugene Hyde, who had studied in California, and Barrington Watson, who had attended the Royal Academy in London and several continental European academies. Their choices illustrate that England was no longer the obligatory overseas study destination, as it had been for the previous generation. Each returned home with new ideas about art – high Modernist in the case of Parboosingh and Hyde and academic in the case of Watson – and an ambitious, cosmopolitan outlook which actively challenged the more limited outlook of earlier nationalist art. Their subject matter was still recognizably Jamaican but they combined this with formal experimentation, a preference for monumental scales that transcended the “living room format” preferred by the nationalist school, and a new critical attitude.

Watson, Hyde and Parboosingh, who were more securely middle class than most of their predecessors, presented themselves emphatically as professionals and made unprecedented public demands about the support Jamaican society should provide for their work. Along with the art collector and engineer-builder A.D. Scott, they founded the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association (CJAA) which was active from 1964 to 1974 as the first professional artists association in Jamaica. Watson was in 1962 appointed Director of Studies of the Jamaican School of Art and Craft (JSAC) which he, in a move that reflected his commitment to “high art” ideals, renamed the Jamaica School of Art, thus dropping the “craft.” He transformed the previously informal, part-time school into a full-time institution with a four-year diploma curriculum, modeled after the then English art school system. This further contributed to the professionalization of the arts and better equipped graduates for further studies abroad.

Predictably, there was animosity between these ambitious young artists and their artistic elders and this went beyond mere aesthetic differences. They were the first to openly challenge Edna Manley’s dominance. Watson stated in a 1984 interview that the older artists “were in a different mould, and they were already established and not prepared to make the big breakout in the way we were” (Waugh 1987, 136) and:

The Edna Manley, the [Junior Center director] Robert Verity and that lot were doing a really good job in the arts before [but it] had something like a colonial approach to it in a sense. It was [a] sort of ‘giving a break to a talented youngster’ type of thing […] They patronized a lot of the artists and kept them at a certain level, unfortunately or inadvertently, by this kind of patronizing approach. (137)

It could certainly be argued that the nationalist intelligentsia’s missionary zeal to promote local talent replicated the colonial notion of the child-like native whose potential had to be awakened and nurtured. Watson and his colleagues were not interested in obtaining any “from the top down” patronage but in self-empowerment – and it is implied, as black postcolonial artists – and they were quite successful in becoming outspoken public figures that functioned as cultural icons and self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

The introduction of high Modernist ideas represented a departure from the populist beginnings of modern Jamaican art and this resulted in what could be construed as a more elitist and “foreign” kind of art. Yet this new generation was more proactively involved in bringing their art into the public domain than their predecessors and took the initiative to be involved in public art projects, to be visible in the local media and to establish new galleries. […]

[The artists of the CJAA generation] wanted “proper” spaces and display methods that matched the high Modernist “white cube” gallery concept (O’Doherty 1986). In 1964, the CJAA opened its own gallery, simply known as the Gallery, which was the first modern gallery space in Jamaica. The Gallery mainly showed the work of its directors but also of like-minded artists such as Kofi Kayiga (né Ricardo Wilkins), Milton Harley and George Rodney – all pioneers of abstract painting in Jamaica. In 1970, Hyde opened his own gallery, the John Peartree Gallery, which provided space for avant-garde artists such as David Boxer, who had solo exhibitions there in 1976 and 1979. Watson followed suit in 1974, when he established Gallery Barrington, although this gallery served primarily to promote his own work. When the CJAA folded in 1974, A.D. Scott established his Olympia International Art Centre, as an expansion of the hotel and apartment complex he had previously built near the UWI campus on the north-eastern outskirts of Kingston. In an effort to integrate art and life, Olympia housed his substantial collection, hosted occasional exhibitions and provided affordable housing for some artists.[…]

While self-promotion was a factor in their public initiatives, the idealism of the CJAA members was genuine. They wished to create art that would be meaningful to the new, progressive Jamaica and to stimulate new thinking, shifting the focus of local art production from the affirmative to the critical. Hyde stated in 1964:

[The] artist needs to be aware of public interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean compliance. In fact one wishes there was more counter-reaction to the artist from the public. It is hard to describe just what we’re seeking, but it is a kind of friction, a sort of force, one against the other, which the artist must have, if he is not to exist in a vacuum (Gloudon 1964).

The CJAA artists were thus not interested in “art for art sake” but wished to produce art that played an active, productive role in Jamaican society. […]

Eugene Hyde

Eugene Hyde is the only major Jamaican artist of his generation who studied entirely in the USA and who did not have an exclusive fine arts training: he had studied advertising design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and then obtained a scholarship to pursue an MFA in painting and graphic design at the Los Angeles Art Institute. He returned to Jamaica in 1960 but after failing to obtain a teaching position at UWI or the JSAC, he left again for the USA, to do further studies in advertising and architectural ceramics. He finally found a job at a Jamaican advertising firm in 1961 and permanently returned to the island. (Smith McCrea 1984)

Hyde’s inaugural Jamaican solo exhibition, which was held at the Institute of Jamaica in 1963, is widely credited as the first local exhibition of abstract art although the works he showed were essentially figurative and perhaps best described as “abstracted expressionism”.[1] Hyde’s work was sometimes excessively influenced by the Italian-American painter Rico Lebrun, an exponent of the “New Imagist” stream in Modernist Western painting which focused on the human figure, represented in an abstracted, expressionistically distorted manner to represent the anxieties of modern existence (Smith-McCrae 1984).[2]

Hyde’s solo exhibition included three mural-size multi-figure paintings, Colonization I, Colonization II and The Lynch Mob, but the entire exhibition, which also included etches and drawings, had an expansive, dramatic quality. This sense of scale and the gestural, abstract expressionist technique of Hyde’s paintings – or, as Eker regretted, his preoccupation with the act of painting itself – was regarded as “American” by some local observers and their responses reveal a deep distrust of the emerging US-American influence in Jamaican culture. The fact that Hyde was primarily trained as a graphic designer was also invoked to suggest that the work lacked “deep” content. Eker denounced “the hectoring tone of the show. It was as though the artist – who, significantly, is also an advertising executive – were shouting ‘Listen to me! Listen to me!’ and when I listened, I found that they had very little to tell me” (1963, 12). The American critic [and Haitian self-taught art promoter] Selden Rodman, in his travel book on the Caribbean, also located Hyde’s work outside of Jamaican culture and summarily dismissed it as “perfectly indigenous to Madison Avenue” (1968, 35). Despite these misgivings, Hyde became influential in the local art community and the ownership of the works in his 1984 retrospective indicate that he was supported by the professional class of his generation.

Hyde’s work challenged local artistic conventions [of the nationalist school] but, as with Parboosingh and Barrington Watson, is better understood in terms of its relationship with the rest of Jamaican art than in terms of any irredeemable difference. While he was certainly concerned with the act of painting (and drawing) in its own right, Hyde was no true formalist and many of his works make socio-political statements, as the titles of his early murals well illustrate. Like his nationalist predecessors and contemporaries such as Parboosingh, Hyde was preoccupied with the effects of colonialism and the challenges of building a modern, independent society but his perspective was more pessimistic. Hyde’s political works, far from being empty rhetorical gestures, represented Jamaica as a wounded, blighted society, disabled by its past and present traumas. Works such as Future Problems (1962), an ink on paper portrait of a poor young man, prophetically captured the discontent among the youth as the main source of social tension in Jamaica.

Hyde - Sunflower2
Eugene Hyde – Sun Flowers (1967), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Not all of Hyde’s early works were political, however, and he also produced abstract, formalist paintings. He obviously preferred to apply the formal explorations of high Modernism to Jamaican subject matter, however, and this resulted in his extended series of Sunflowers, Spathodias and Crotons of the late 1960s to early 1970s. These highly abstracted explorations of the Jamaican vegetation were, with their bold designs and intense colors, as celebratory as Albert Huie’s light-infused landscapes (although his Sunflowers, inevitably, also referenced van Gogh’s more morbid use of this floral theme.)

Like Parboosingh, Hyde believed in the crucial importance of artistic experimentation and in a 1969 speech asserted this as a basic right of the artist, which had to be supported by society (Gleaner, April 16, 1969, 22). He experimented vigorously with various techniques and media, among others painting in acrylic on Perspex, even in works that were more focused on content. Hyde’s style and subject matter were, however, more consistent and recognizable than Parboosingh’s. This was evident in works such as 1938 – Mask A Come (1976), his main commission for the Bank of Jamaica art collection [a project that was initially chaired by Barrington Watson], which was at six by twenty-five feet one of the largest paintings ever produced in Jamaica. The semi-abstract, multi-figure composition directly relates to his earlier murals although it incorporated some of the formal characteristics of his floral abstracts – the almost baroque, dynamic and rounded forms and more intense and varied colours. The mural is perhaps Hyde most conventionally nationalist work, not surprisingly since it was commissioned for a public collection. It represents a charging Jonkonnu band – the creole title means “the masks are coming” – but also makes reference to the 1938 rebellion, thus emphasizing the revolutionary potential of popular culture.[3] The threatening, monstrous quality of the masquerade mob, however, adds ambiguity to the work’s message, which may relate to Hyde’s concerns about the social and political direction of the 1970s.

Hyde mural boj
73. Eugene Hyde – Mask A Come (1976) , Collection: Bank of Jamaica

Those developments, especially the increasingly close association with communist Cuba, were a source of great controversy in Jamaican society but most artists were supportive or at least remained silent – the dominance of the Manleys in cultural patronage and the establishment of new cultural institutions that could make or break artistic careers may have been a reason for not wanting to rock the boat. Hyde was the only prominent artist to be overtly critical of the Michael Manley administration. The resulting spurt of activity produced two significant series of “protest works” that exemplify the dialogue between formalism and socio-political content in Hyde’s oeuvre. At first view, the mixed media works of his Colour Is a Personal Thing (1978) series may seem like formalist geometric abstractions but the works are in effect variations on the colors and patterns of the Cuban and Jamaican flags which seem to be merging into one, with the Cuban flag literally “invading” the Jamaican colors. Hyde thus presented the involvement with Cuba as a neo-colonial invasion, a position which challenged the Third World solidarity vision of the Manley government and implicitly questioned its nationalist credentials. The sardonic titles that echo the Cuban revolutionary rhetoric – such as, The Landing of the Advisors, The Nucleus of a New Rainbow and Hand in Hand Across the Caribbean – further added to the subversive tone of the works. The series illustrates that abstract paintings can make potent political statements and Jamaican audiences at that time would have been sufficiently familiar with the political symbols and controversies of the day to decipher them.

Eugene Hyde - Landing of the Advisors
Eugene Hyde – The Landing of the Advisors (Colour is a Personal Thing, 1978), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Hyde, who always gravitated towards the human figure, returned to his “new imagist” roots in the subsequent Casualties (1978) series, which was shown at Barrington Watson’s gallery, almost simultaneously with Colour Is a Personal Thing at Hyde’s own gallery. In the Casualties, Hyde combined abstract political color symbolism with figurative elements: ghostly bandaged figures inspired by the ragged, anonymous homeless persons who were becoming increasingly numerous and visible on the Kingston streets and, to Hyde, vividly symbolized the deprivation faced by the Jamaican people during the 1970s. In Behind the Red Fence, such a bandaged figure is partially concealed by a frayed but blood-red sheet of “zinc” or corrugated metal, one of the main recuperated building materials used in Jamaica’s urban slums. The red refers to communism and the bloodshed in Jamaica, thus linking the two. In Good Friday (1978), three bandaged figures invoke Christ and the two thieves, against a backdrop dominated by the colors of the Jamaican flag and “slashed” with a horizontal line of “communist” red. These works also exemplify Hyde’s preoccupation with formal experimentation: he combined painting and drawing media on canvas and used irregular and multi-panel formats that added a three-dimensional quality to his paintings. Good Friday consists of six panels which must be hung together in two layers of three, with the two middle panels dropped two inches below the others, to reveal the over-all image of the work.

Eugene Hyde - Good Friday
Eugene Hyde – Good Friday, from the Casualties Series, 1978 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

Hyde believed that he was penalized for his political views. His 1977 request for a retrospective at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) was denied, on the grounds that he was still in mid career and that older artists should take precedence, but Hyde saw it as a deliberate slight (Smith McCrea 1984, 44). Around that time he told a fellow artist: “I am sure they are going to lock me up one of these days. I am not going to take it lying down. In fact, I have some work coming on stream which I am going to show, which is bound to land me in jail” (45). Hyde, in actuality, exhibited his political works without recorded difficulty but his concerns were typical of the era, when elite Jamaicans were leaving the country in droves to escape the threats, real or perceived, of Communism and totalitarianism.

While there were some attempts on the part of the Manley administration to curtail the increasingly critical local press, especially the openly anti-Manley Gleaner, freedom of expression was generally maintained in the arts. For Andrew Hope [Ignacy Eker’s later pen name], Hyde’s 1978 shows provided an opportunity to air his own anti-socialist views (1978, 4) but even those art community members who did not share Hyde’s political views seemed to agree that his 1978 works were among his most compelling. Works from Colour is a Personal Thing series were even selected by the “Manleyite” NGJ for inclusion in an exhibition of Jamaican art in Caracas in 1978 and works from that series and the Casualties were also acquired for the NGJ’s permanent collection. Hyde’s political works were, however, not as well supported by Jamaican collectors as his earlier paintings and most remained in his personal collection. The reason for this may not have been their political content per se but the fact that the anxious, ravaged images were not easy to live with, while local art patronage had been eroded by migration and economic crisis.

Hyde’s suspicions were again aroused when the visual arts were left out of the Jamaican representation at the 1979 Carifesta festival in Cuba.[4] He vented his anger in an open letter to the Minister of Culture, Arnold Bertram which was, predictably, published prominently and in full in the Gleaner. The letter concluded:

It would appear to me that your new Colonial Masters have managed to completely brainwash you and have distorted your priorities, so that now it would seem that we have lost the meaning of national pride and independence in our cultural awareness, and is now reduced merely to a nation of political slaves and entertainers. Let me remind you, young man, that we have surpassed this stereotype image long ago and I am proud to say that this country can stand firm on its own merits in the Plastic Arts, and no thanks to you (August 27, 1979, 8).

Hyde lost much of his previous support within the art community because of this letter, not so much for the position he expressed, which was shared by many others, but for the condescending manner in which he addressed the Minister, in a country where respectful formality is the norm in such public exchanges.

Hyde died suddenly, by drowning while on a beach outing with his family in June 1980, just four months short of the general elections that ended Jamaica’s socialist experiment. Like Parboosingh, he made a short but crucial intervention in the development of contemporary Jamaican art. He, too, helped to shape the “new imagist” figurative expressionism that dominated contemporary Jamaican art in the 1980s and carved out a new role for the artist as provocateur and independent critical commentator.

Endnotes

[1] Strictly spoken, the first exhibition of Modernist abstraction was Milton Harley’s solo show at the Hills Gallery in 1962. Harley, a contemporary of Hyde, is one of very few Jamaican painters to produce truly abstract paintings but never reached comparable prominence, perhaps because he has not continuously lived on the island.

[2] The term “New Imagist” refers to figurative expressionist work related to what was shown in exhibition “New Images of Man” (1959) at MOMA, which included artists such as by Picasso, Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti and Reg Butler, and which represented an alternative, content-oriented stream in high Modernism which rejected its then-dominant formalist tenets and reflected the existentialist anxieties of the post World War II era. The term, which has been used to describe such work in Jamaica, was apparently coined by David Boxer in his doctoral dissertation on the early work of Francis Bacon at Johns Hopkins University.

[3] Jonkonnu is a Christmas-time masquerade with complex African, European and possibly Native American origins. It originated during slavery, when the slaves got time off around Christmas, and is now on the wane, despite efforts to folklorize and preserve it. Similar traditions exist elsewhere in the Caribbean, most notably in the Bahamas, where Junkanoo, as it is spelled there, is the main annual cultural event.

[4] Carifesta is a regional cultural festival that was inaugurated in 1972 in Guyana, as a cultural goodwill initiative of the Forbes Burham government. The second edition was held in Jamaica in 1976 and the third in Cuba in 1979. Jamaica’s representation at the Cuban Carifesta should have included visual art but this was apparently left out at the last moment because of problems with air cargo restrictions on the Cubana Airlines flight to Havana (personal communication David Boxer, June 13, 2006). Carifesta still exists today and was last held in Guyana in 2008 although it is often criticized as a relic of the socialist seventies and a poorly organized showcase for predictable and mediocre products of a dated official cultural nationalism.

SOURCES

“Artist’s Right to Experiment.” Gleaner, April 16, 1969, 22

Eker, Ignacy. “Around the Kingston Art Exhibitions.” Sunday Magazine, Gleaner, May 5, 1963, 12

Gloudon, Barbara. “Art and the Public.” Gleaner, September 18, 1964, 3

Hope, Andrew. “Anxiety Time: Eugene Hyde’s Paintings.” Gleaner, July 5, 1978, 4

Hyde, Eugene. “Letter to the Editor.” Gleaner, August 27, 1979, 8

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986

Smith-McCrea, Rosalie. Eugene Hyde: A Retrospective. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1984

Waugh, Elizabeth. “Emergent Art and National Identity in Jamaica, 1920s to the Present.” Ph D. Dissertation, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1987

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