By Dennis Raverty
Allan Crite was a painter of urban life. Aligning himself with Social Realist trends that dominated American art from the Depression through the postwar period, his work shows the influence of Archibald Motley, Jr., and Palmer Hayden, fellow African American painters a generation older than Crite, who had been associated with the Harlem Renaissance, or as they called it, the “New Negro” movement.
Crite’s work typically portrays everyday life in predominantly black neighborhoods in Boston, where the artist lived — people playing horseshoes, hanging out on their doorsteps or dressed up for church on Sunday morning. These are what he called his “neighborhood” paintings.
Much less familiar are his works devoted to Christian themes such as the illustrations he did for a small volume on the Mass published by Cowley Press. Crite was an Episcopalian and the book is a mystical Anglo-Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist in pictures.
One illustration shows a priest celebrating Mass with huge candlesticks on both ends of the altar, the light from which illuminates giant six-winged seraphim that hold even larger candlesticks high above. Enshrined at the very top of the painting in a burst of light are the Hebrew characters spelling the ineffable name of God. The priest does not dominate the composition but is rendered as a small figure at the bottom. It is clear from Crite’s illustration that it is not the priest who transforms the bread and wine, but God himself.
In some of his most interesting work, the artist combines the realism of his genre scenes with Christian themes, such as the series of pen-and-ink drawings on the words of the Apostle’s Creed. Each line from the creed is accompanied by an illustration.
In Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Christ is shown after his flagellation tied to a pillar in what appears to be a public square in a contemporary town or suburb. He is limp and hangs forward suspended by the ropes. The figure of Christ, stripped to the waist, is rendered in intaglio, a technique of describing form with white lines against a black ground (as opposed to the more common method of using black lines on a white ground), often executed with a razor blade or stylus. Yet Crite has not done the entire drawing in intaglio, only the body of Jesus, rendering Christ as black.
In the background is a water tower looming imperiously over the scene. However, the mob seems to have dispersed and Christ is alone and abandoned. During this period of heavy Klu Klux Klan activity, semi-public whippings were not unknown, but this kind of vigilante “justice” was usually meted out far away from town at night by torchlight, not openly in the square in broad daylight as it is here, suggesting a certain brazenness about this organized assault.
That the town is in collusion with the mob is suggested by an oppressive, modernistic office building in the background, the type of bland structure that haunts small-town America, and a larger building, which looks institutional and may be a school, courthouse, or government bureau. The civic buildings witness the crime and are powerless to stop it.
In drawings like this, Crite poignantly reminds his viewers that Christ understands what it means to suffer, to be despised, to be abandoned by his friends, and the artist challenges us to take a hard look at how Christ will continue to be crucified as long as injustice and racism exist.
Dennis Raverty, assistant professor of art history at New Jersey City University, is a specialist in early 20th century Modernism.
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