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Charles Sebree, The Mystic

Charles Sebree's painting "The Mystic" explores the inner self through a cloud-like space of imagination. The figure's profile, resembling a mask, signifies the transition between the outer and inner self. Sebree's work deviates from social realism, focusing instead on the inner self. The painting's illusionary face and ambiguous clothing add to its mystic appeal. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Beth] We're in the Georgia Museum of Art, and we're looking at a rather small painting by Charles Sebree. The title is "The Mystic." - [Shawna] We don't have any identifying information about who this figure might be. There's not a specific locale or place that's denoted. - [Jeffrey] And the space of the painting is evoking This sense of a cloud-like space of imagination, even enlightenment in the way that they extend from his face and brighten from the darkened greens on the left half of the picture. - [Beth] Almost as though we were seeing something emanating from the figure himself, some kind of interior state. - [Shawna] The idea of the inner self is a very important aspect of Sebree's work. And there's this physical eye, but also this almost symbolic eye. So this idea of mirroring the inner and the outer comes through in his work. - [Beth] And it seems to me that there's a real difference between what Sebree is interested in and what so many artists are doing at the time in terms of social realism. He's looking inward. - [Jeffrey] The way in which that profile is delineated and this line of black and white above the forehead, there's a sense that this is almost a mask-like form and a mask is to that place of transition between the outer and the inner. He himself as a Black man in Chicago at this time navigating the racial tensions of this era, and also as a gay man who was navigating that identity, as well, but finding himself in a community of very like-minded artists in Chicago, both African American artists and white artists who were experimenting in very similar little ways with these highly visionary and surrealist pictures. - [Shawna] One of the things I think is interesting is this sense of illusion that he creates with the face. On the one hand, we're thinking about it as a face in profile, but if you look at it again it looks like someone sliced half of the face off and that what we see is the remnant through that eye. - [Beth] The clouds have a substance that the background of the painting doesn't have. And then I notice also there's a little piece of cloud on his hairline, and there's also this way in which the paint feels in some way scraped away. So this idea of emerging and then retreating or being subsumed or hidden. - [Jeffrey] And the clothing that he's wearing, it's very ambiguous as to what this garment is. There's something about this mystic that seems almost ecclesiastical or liturgical, like he's this religious figure who's in staring into the clouds is trying to see through a veil, trying to see what's beneath reality. And I think that play between depth and surface is both artistic exploration, but also a larger attempt to comment on the things we see and the things we don't see and the things that hide behind the things of this world. - [Beth] And this scraping feeling of these horizontal and vertical lines and these points of blackness that the figure feels to be behind. We're seeing him, but we're not really seeing him. - [Jeffrey] And we might be able to see that mystic figure as Sebree himself, as a picture about vision that is the work of the artist. - [Beth] It's a remarkable painting by an artist who is not as well-known as other African American artists at the beginning of the 20th Century. (jazzy piano music)