Benjamin West (1738-1820), The Ascension (1801), oil on canvas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn.
On Friday I returned from a ten-day trip to Millington, Tennessee where I was doing special work for the US Navy. Last Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain and drove to nearby Memphis to visit the Dixon Gallery of Art. I passed through some pretty slummy areas of the city to get there. My first impression of the Home of the Blues was mostly negative until I arrived at the Dixon. This small but impressive museum was founded by the English-born cotton magnate and fine arts patron Hugo Dixon, who made a large fortune in the cotton business.
French impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Bonnard form the core of the permanent collection. There are also two Marc Chagall paintings on display and even an abstract expressionist painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) who literally colored outside of the lines, painting over the frame. But the work that has stuck with me the most since my visit is a stunning painting of the Ascension of Christ by the artist Benjamin West (above).
Conspicuously absent from the museum collection is any depiction of the laborers upon whose backs Mr. Dixon’s fortune was built. No sharecroppers. No African-Americans. No Americans of any kind for that matter. Dixon ascended to glory on the backs of the poor who have no representation in his art collection. We all compartmentalize our lives and I don’t want to be too harsh on a great philanthropist. For all I know, he may have given millions to help the poor. But a museum brochure mentions only Dixon’s generosity to the fine arts and higher education.
The day after my visit to the Dixon Gallery, I traveled to the Mississippi Delta where cotton is still king, and rural poverty, which was invisible in the art museum, is all too apparent. I went to the tiny town of Shaw (pop. 1,952) where our daughter Natalie took a mission trip during her spring break last year. Shaw’s infrastructure and buildings are literally crumbling. Along the main street stores have collapsed behind their fronts and several empty buildings have fallen prey to arsonists. This once thriving town is now in a state of decay. Most businesses left after whites moved out in the 1970s and 80s. Now there isn’t even a supermarket. The only place to buy food is at the local gas station. Many people are unemployed. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. It’s not a pretty picture.
However, even in the depressing surroundings of Shaw I found beauty. There’s beauty in the people who continue to scratch a living from hard circumstances. There’s beauty in the three nuns who run a tutoring center for under-performing children. As I reflect back on my trip, I can’t help thinking about Benjamin West’s image of Christ ascending. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even though parts of it look like hell, maybe Shaw is closer to heaven than it appears.