Paul Robeson was a great singer, actor, athlete, political activist and human rights activist in the first half of the 20th century. He excelled at everything he did, earning a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915 at age 17, being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, being selected a member of the Rutgers Cap and Skull society and then moving on to a distinguished career in the theater, opera, radio and the movies.
He also did some nude modeling for photographer Nickolas Muray, who later went to photograph President Eisenhower, painter Freda Kahlo, actresses Colleen Moore and Greta Garbo, and the Lucky Strike girls.
According to the book "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson," which was written from material obtained from his diaries, "Paul was unabashed in posing nude...He was the first African-American celebrity to do so. In contrast to the conservatism that was a hallmark of the African-American cultural tradition, he felt he was participating in a worthy artistic venture."
Robeson also posed nude for Italian-American sculptor Antonio Salemme. In 1924, the sculptor saw a performance of Eugene O'Neill's drama ''The Emperor Jones'' starring Robeson that affected him for the rest of his life. Salemme invited Robeson to pose for him, and out of these sessions came not only a friendship, but also a full-figure nude portrait of the actor in bronze-colored plaster, ''Negro Spiritual.''
|Paul Robeson "Negro Spiritual"|
The piece was exhibited at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco before spending the summer of 1930 on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. That same summer the Philadelphia Art Alliance asked Salemme to send the Robeson sculpture for an exhibition, then declined to exhibit it. Later that year, New York City's Union League Club planned to display the piece as part of its yearly homage to the arts, but quickly reversed their decision when members complained. Salemme applied a plaster fig leaf over Robeson's genitals, but it didn't appease the League and the sculpture was removed from the exhibit eliciting a series of anti-censorship editorials.
In the early 1930s, Salemme took the piece to Paris under a Guggenheim Grant for display until shipping it to a foundry to be cast, thinking he had a buyer. The sale fell through, Salemme's money ran out, and World War II loomed. He returned to the United States without it, its fate never known.
Salemme also created a number of bronze busts of Robeson. One is on display at Rutgers University, one is at the Paul Robeson Foundation, and others are in private hands. After the sculptor's death, his wife Martha donated her last copy to the Allentown Art Museum, which owns a number of his works.
Paul Robeson in Show Boat:
Born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, Robeson made his singing recital and his film debut in 1925. The movie Body and Soul
, was a rather murky melodrama that nevertheless was ahead of its time in its depictions of black characters. Although Robeson played a scurrilous, corrupt clergyman who takes advantage of his own people, his dynamic personality managed to shine through.
Radio and recordings helped spread his name across foreign waters. His resonant bass was a major highlight in the London production of "Show Boat" particularly with his powerful rendition of "Ol' Man River." He remained in London to play the role of Shakespeare's "Othello" in 1930 (at the time no U.S. company would hire him), and was again significant in a highly controversial production. Paul caused a slight stir by co-starring opposite a white actress, Peggy Ashcroft, who played Desdemona.
Paul Robeson as Othello:
His last movie would be the Hollywood production Tales of Manhattan (1942), which he critiqued for its demeaning portrayal of African-Americans.
A beloved international figure, Robeson regularly spoke out against racial injustice and was involved in world politics. He supported Pan-Africanism, sang for Loyalist soldiers during Spain's civil war, took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations and performed for Allied forces during WWII. He also visited the Soviet Union several times during the mid-1930s, taken by much of its culture and ideas.
Robeson was labeled a communist, and was barred by the State Department from renewing his passport in 1950 to travel abroad for engagements. Despite his immense popularity, he was blacklisted from domestic concert venues, recording labels and film studios.
Robeson published his biography, Here I Stand, in 1958, the same year that he won the right to have his passport reinstated. Robeson published his biography, Here I Stand
, in 1958, the same year that he won the right to have his passport reinstated. Robeson died from a stroke on January 23, 1976, at the age of 77, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.