COLUMBIA — Renowned artists such as Diego Rivera, Nicolai Fechin and Weegee have stood in line to paint or photograph dancer Maudelle Bass Weston, known professionally as Maudelle. Recently, MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology acquired a bust of her by a lesser-known artist, Beulah Ecton Woodard.
“Maudelle,” circa 1937-38, was purchased at the recommendation of Mary Pixley, the museum’s associate curator for European and American art.
“I just had to have her,” Pixley said. She thought modern and African-American art at the museum needed strengthening and that the piece would aid in that effort.
“Like the Renaissance masterpieces, she will stand the test of time and truly make a great addition to the museum,” Pixley said.
This was Pixley’s first acquisition for the museum, where she began working in September, and was purchased in an auction of African-American art by Swann Galleries in New York City. “Maudelle” went on public display Oct. 20 in the museum’s Robert and Maria Barton Gallery of Modern Art.
Maudelle Bass Weston was a dancer who performed throughout the United States and Mexico. Among her most recognized performances was the role of “Black Priestess” in choreographer Agnes de Mille’s “Black Ritual” for the American Ballet Theatre in 1940.
The bust was sculpted using terra cotta and this medium allows you to feel where Woodard’s hands moved as she molded it. As you walk around the sculpture, “Maudelle” changes from every angle, coming to life, Pixley said. It is slightly smaller than life-size, but the striking features, large cornrows and faded green earrings create such a presence that it seems larger.
Pixley’s fascination with this piece, which she considers the highlight of Woodard’s career, aroused her further interest in the artist. Woodard’s primary purpose in art was to educate, Pixley said, and she was concerned with black youth and using her art to make them proud of their heritage. She was the first black person to show her art at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1935, and she organized the Los Angeles Negro Art Association in 1937.
Her efforts, along with the diversity of California, led to museums displaying work from other cultures. Unfortunately, Woodard died in 1955, just as she was beginning to make a name for herself internationally.
“She’s still such an unknown artist, and I want her to be known,” Pixley said. “I’m hoping she’ll get the recognition she so rightly deserves.”