He was only the third African American student to ever attend Rutgers University but it didn't stop him from achieving academic EXCELLENCE! He was a brilliant scholar and a phenomenal athlete on the football field. He graduated with a degree from Columbia Law School, but he wanted to sing and act. Paul Robeson soon became one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance as well as one of our most noted Renaissance Men. Robeson's rumbling, honey-laced baritone propelled him onto the Broadway stage, a film and recording career, and into international superstardom. He was The Emperor Jones, Othello and our own Ambassador of Culture all rolled into one! Father Robeson spoke out against racism, facism, and became an international activist fighting for the labor movement, trade unions, Welsh coal miners, the Spanish Civil War, and the civil rights of Africans everywhere!
He was too bold and brilliant and too black and beautiful, too! America didn't always love Paul Robeson but Paul Robeson loved America. Apparently, he didn't mind going nude every now and then. So much so, that he got butt naked right in the heart of Greenwich Village, and loved every minute of it! In 1925, slightly before he became all things to all people, he was still dealing with the effects of a strict religious upbringing imposed by his minister father, and although he lived in Harlem, the strict social mores imposed by his bourgeois wife Essie, and the collective dogma of the Talented Tenth. Looking for a taste of freedom, It seems fitting that Paul would find a new flavor nearby in the Village, a place where they were not always worried about such things.
Amongst the sexually liberated bohemians and other artists in the Village, many of whom were gay and lesbian, he was free to be. There, he wasn't worried about being perfect, but it wasn't about scandal. It was about timing and atmosphere, the lust and the art.
Like everyone else, Nickolas Murray saw Paul Robeson and fell in love with his magnificence. Murray operated a photography studio in the Village where his business acumen and talent ignited to the point that his work was soon appearing in Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair. His cut his teeth on celebrity photos of such movie divas as Greta Garbo and Colleen Moore - except he didn't photograph them nude like he did Robeson in 1926. Some contemporary critics suggest that Robeson was an unwitting pawn, help captive by the "primitive" lens of the photographer, his body objectified and achievements ignored. I don't think that particular critique is true on either the part of the photographer or his subject. Whatever the case, it was a bold move for Robeson who by doing so, became the first African American celebrity to pose nude.
Meanwhile, overlooking Washington Square,
the well-known Italian-American sculptor Antonio Salemme created his art and entertained a core group of Village artists and friends. Back in 1924, he'd been told about a "magnificent man" appearing onstage as The Emperor Jones. More than an actor, he saw an awesome body "beautifully formed and glistening with sweat." He approached Paul Robeson backstage and told him he wanted to sculpt a life-size, seven foot tall nude statue of him. Paul eyed him and they both grinned like adolescent schoolboys. He went home with Salemme and posed for the first time that very night. It was his first time among the radicals, the avant-garde, the renegades, anarchists and libertarians. And he fit right in! Paul would pose after performances sometimes up to three hours. The artist and his subject became very close with Salemme taking Paul to museums and art exhibits, and Paul taking the artist uptown to Harlem. The in-crowd flocked to the studio to watch the naked progression. The white women came out in droves! Paul even had an affair with Salemme's wife. He had what can be described as....presence!
Due to other commitments, the posing spread out over a two-year period. The statue, covered in bronze-colored plaster was completed in 1926 (the same year Muray's photographs were taken) and Antonio Salemme called it "the highest achievment of my art." In 1930, when it was finally going to be seen publically in Philadelphia, all hell broke loose. It was recrated and returned to Salemme after they saw there was no figleaf to cover what couldn't be covered, and race and politics blocked the inclusion of the statue in the exhibit. A few years later, when Salemme was in Paris on a Guggenheim grant, he thought he found a buyer for the statue and had it shipped over but the deal fell through. The statue supposedly went in storage until WWII, and when the sculptor's money ran out, he returned home without it. It hasn't been seen since! One of Robeson's biographers, Martin Duberman says that when he interviewed Antonio Salemme at the age of 93 in 1983, he was still trying to duplicate the statue from memory!
Reading Duberman's definitive biography, Paul Robeson Jr.'s biography of his father, An Artist's Journey (1898-1939), and especially Paul Robeson: The Years Of Promise And Achievment by Boyle & Bunie, and it's not hard to imagine Paul partying with the denizens of Greenwich Village. It's possible that he was often accompanied by his musical mentor, Lawrence Brown (right) who was extremely erudite, elegant and refined. He is also described as being very discreet, but he was admittedly gay! He was a musical master who revolutionized the Negro Spirituals that Robeson would soon become known for the world over. The two were previously acquainted in Harlem and in Paris, but it was at an impromptu 1925 concert in the Village that they formed a historic musical partnership that lasted for the next 37 years. Of course, the gays loved Paul, too! He was often approached, and they offered him money for sex, but he was "never moralistic or judgmental on that subject but rather wholly accepting" says one intimate. All things considered, would one expect anything less?
Paul Robeson full essence could never be captured in a nude photograph nor a blog post, but I wanted to somehow present him real and true. Thanks to Nickolas Muray's photographs, the history behind Antonio Salemme's bronze sculpture, and Paul's own progressiveness, I present him naked, lost but also found again. In addition to the books I've already mentioned, check out an excellent DVD called Here I Stand. To hear Robeson in all his splendor, find the CD's called Songs of Free Men, and A Lonesome Road.