John Rhoden papers: Why was John in the Soviet Union?

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

John Rhoden and Drago Tršar in Ljubljana, Slovenia, circa 1958-1959.

One thing that surprised me while processing the John Rhoden papers was that John Rhoden traveled extensively in the Soviet Union during 1958 and 1959. As someone born in the 1990’s, the Cold War is very much history to me. As such, I was utterly unaware that American Citizens were able to enter the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Because of this, I decided to do a bit of research into how John found himself behind the Iron Curtain for several months in the late 1950s. 

John’s trip to the Soviet Union was the result of a socio-political phenomenon known as the Khrushchev Thaw. In the mid-to-late 1950’s, after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the tensions of the Cold War came to a temporary decline. This was due in large part to the more relaxed social ideals of the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and the joint efforts for peace between Khrushchev and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In this time period, both leaders were more willing to cooperate to find an understanding between America and the Soviet Union. 

John Rhoden and an unidentified man in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, circa 1958-1959

Khrushchev believed that the Soviet Union could match the Western world’s living standards, and as such, permitted exposure to Western culture within the Soviet Union. He allowed a relative amount of freedom in the arts and, most notably for John’s story, allowed Westerners to travel to the Soviet Union and vice versa. 

In 1955, Khrushchev and Eisenhower met and in that same year, they agreed to start exchanging written materials. In 1956, Eisenhower made a speech at the People-to-People conference advocating contact between Soviet and American citizens in the search for a cross-cultural understanding. By 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union came to the United States-Soviet Cultural Exchange Agreement of 1958, also known as the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement. 

The Lacy-Zarubin Agreement permitted cultural, educational, and scientific exchange between the two nations. This agreement opened the doors for John’s work as an art specialist touring the Soviet Union under the auspices of the United States Department of State. 

From left: William A. Smith, John Rhoden, Franklin C. Watkins, and Lamar Dodd arriving in Moscow in 1958.

In the Fall and Winter of 1958-1959, John visited the Soviet Union as a part of a team of artists, including painters William A. Smith, Lamar Dodd, and Franklin C. Watkins. Once in the Soviet Union, Dodd and Watkins followed separate programs, and Rhoden and Smith stayed together as travel companions. 

The pair traveled extensively within the Soviet Union, visiting numerous countries, including Armenia, which, at the time, was not open to Western-visitors. They were granted special permission only after meeting and forming friendships with several Soviet representatives and artists.

During this tour, the pair focused on forming relationships with artists in the Soviet Union. They made the decision not to arrive with examples of their own work, so as not to be presumptuous, but brought slides showing American art. They visited countless art schools, artists’ studios, and museums. John reported that the Soviet artists and citizens were reserved at first, but were ultimately very curious about America and Americans. Overall, it seems that John had an excellent time with his Soviet peers. 

William A. Smith sketching for a crowd in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia, circa 1958-1959

The final aspect of John’s work with the Soviet Union, and the culminating point of the efforts for understanding between the U.S. and Soviet Union in this era, was the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. This exhibition was accompanied by a Soviet Exhibition, held in New York in 1959. Both exhibitions displayed the presenting nation’s cultural and scientific innovations in an effort to promote cross-cultural understanding between the nations. Of course, ulterior motives existed. These exhibitions were used as opportunities for covert intelligence collecting through KGB and CIA operatives, posing as members of the exchange groups. Furthermore, they were intended to serve as propaganda for each nation’s way of life and system of government. 

John’s experience in the Soviet Union resulted in him having a minor role in the planning of the exhibition. Due to his experience, the exhibition planners asked him to write a series of questions and answers relating to American sculpture. These questions would be processed into an IBM RAMAC electronic machine and displayed at the exhibition, along with questions and answers about other aspects of American life.

John’s time in the Soviet Union seemed to be the result of a hopeful blip in history. In October of 1964, just five years after John visited the Soviet Union, as an aging Khrushchev grew increasingly erratic and undependable, a conspiratorial plan was carried out by Leonid Brezhnev and the Central Committee to force Khrushchev to resign. Khrushchev’s removal from his position as the leader of the Soviet Union led to the break down of the decreased USSR/US tensions resulting from the Khrushchev Thaw.

This, of course, is a simplified account of a very complex moment in history. However, I hope it serves to provide some context surrounding John’s time in the Soviet Union. John’s small, but not inconsiderable, role in this historical moment is yet another example of his historical and cultural relevance, so it seems both interesting and important to examine the larger picture.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.


Treasure in the John Rhoden papers

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

Sometimes during the more mundane tasks, archivists have the absolute pleasure of discovering unexpected gems. 

Richenda Rhoden modeling a Hellenistic Gold Diadem in Munich, circa 1954-1957.

While cataloging the other day, I was faced with several images of Richenda Rhoden. These slides had no caption, no contextualizing background, and no corresponding images that could help with identification. When they arrived at PAFA, they were not grouped with other slides that could help with identification either.

For months, as we went through with processing and digitizing the John Rhoden papers, these slides remained entirely enigmatic. We had left them in a “Miscellaneous” folder, just hoping that one day they might make sense. 

That day came last week when I started cataloging the miscellaneous travel slides. As an information professional, it was difficult to simply describe these incredible photos of Richenda as “unidentified”. I did what any archivist would’ve done–I went down a wormhole of Google searches. 

Each time I had approached these images, I had assumed that Richenda was either purchasing jewelry or trying on traditional, but nondescript, pieces during her travels with John. I had not centered my research on the individual pieces of jewelry themselves as I could not fathom that she would be sporting priceless and culturally significant pieces of jewelry. That is where I went wrong. After becoming frustrated, I decided to take a shot in the dark and research the pieces of jewelry themselves. 

Richenda Rhoden modeling a Hellenistic Gold Diadem in Munich, circa 1954-1957.

Upon a quick search of tiaras, which led me more specifically to diadems, I was able to establish that Richenda was, in fact, wearing a significant piece of jewelry. This piece in particular is a Hellenistic Gold Diadem from 250 – 150 B.C. Though it is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany during the Rhodens’ travels. This discovery both gave us a location and approximate date and made the images that much more special. 

Further research led to the discovery that the ring and cuff bracelet Richanda models in one of the images belonged to Queen Amanishakheto. Amanishakheto was a Kandake (meaning sister of the King of Kush, and due to matrilineal succession, the queen mother) of Kush. As a Kandake, she had a powerful role as regent. Amanishakheto reigned roughly from 10 B.C. to 1 A.D. 

Richenda models pieces from a collection of jewelry found in her pyramid at Meroe (Beg. N6). In 1834, Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini ransacked Amanishakheto’s resting place and destroyed her pyramid in search of her burial treasures. The pieces are now in the Egyptian Museums of Berlin and Munich, where Richenda encountered them. 

Richenda Rhoden modeling treasures from the pyramid of Amanishakheto in Munich or Berlin, circa 1954-1957.

It has been a little over a week since this finding and I am still awestruck by the fact that world class European museums were letting Richenda try on ancient and priceless pieces of their collections. It could be a sign of the times and changing reverence for historic objects, or is could be a result of the intoxicating effect she seemed to have on many of the people they met, as evidenced by the many mentions of her in European newspapers. Either way, it is yet another interesting little gem in the Rhoden papers that I am pleased to be able to share. 

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

A Tale of Perseverence in the John Rhoden papers

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

During our three months away from the John Rhoden papers, we had one brief respite in the form of a Zoom lecture with our education department. During this lecture we spoke about John Rhoden, the John Rhoden papers, and the archive as storytelling. I noted one thing the archives tell us about John Rhoden that I would like to return to and elaborate on. 

From the Rhoden papers, we learn that John was an ambitious businessman, far more so than one might expect from the stereotypical understanding of an artist. He was an active self-promoter and a highly successful networker. 

The point to which I wished to return is that John was also resilient and persistent. He had a highly successful career and was recognized with some of the most notable accolades in the art world. However, he was no stranger to rejection.

John did not seem to be discouraged by rejection. In fact, he seemed to use it as fuel for his fire and an opportunity to improve and prove himself. The John Rhoden papers have several examples of John repeatedly applying to the same thing he was once rejected from, each time accumulating an ever more impressive band of advocates and curating a successful career that was impossible to ignore. 

The best-documented case of John’s resilience in the Rhoden Papers is his journey to earning the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship. In the Rhoden papers, we have evidence that John applied for the Guggenheim fellowship in 1945-1946, 1949-1950, 1954-1956, and in 1959-1961.

John Rhoden’s first rejection letter from the Guggenheim fellowship, 1945.

In 1945-1946, his first time applying to the fellowship, John was a young artist seeking educational support. He had yet to enroll at Columbia University, and his only experience to date was at Talladega College, The New York School of Art, and the New School for Social Research. A rejection letter in the Rhoden papers reveals that  the Guggenheim fellowship was not meant for one “to study art as a pupil.” John simply hadn’t acquired the experience and knowledge to earn the fellowship. 

By the next time he applied in 1949-1950, John was nearing the end of his time at Columbia University and had been awarded a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund in 1948. He had met many of the people who would serve as references on his behalf and had built a resume to include several first prizes in sculpture at Columbia. His artistic knowledge and experience had advanced and he was once again ready to apply to the Guggenheim fellowship. 

He applied with an impressive round up of references, including Oronzio Maldarelli, William Zorach, Hugo Robus, and Peppino Mangravite, who all taught John at Columbia, Harlem Renaissance greats Richmond Barthé and Alain Locke, and early supporters from Talladega College, Hale Woodruff and Margaret Montgomery. 

We do not have his rejection letter from 1949 to 1950, but it is clear that, while he was on the right path to being qualified, John was still somewhat green in his career. 

By John’s next application in 1954-1956, he had accumulated a Skowhegan School scholarship, a Tiffany Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Prix de Rome. He had studied under many notable people and had begun to travel the world for his artistic endeavors. Oronzio Maldarelli once again served as a reference, and was joined by the likes of curator of paintings at the Met, Robert Beverly Hale, art historian Bernie Weinberg, artists Arthur Osver, Franklin Watkins, and Francis Scott Bradford, the dean of Fine Arts at Columbia, Leopold Arnaud, director of Galleria Schneider, Bob Schneider, and director of the American Academy in Rome Laurance Roberts. 

Despite an impressive resume and a long list of highly regarded references, John, once again, was not awarded the Guggenheim fellowship. It is unclear if this was of his own volition, however, as his travels with the U.S. Department of State were extended through the latter half of the 1950s. 

Finally, in 1959, John Rhoden writes to Dr. Henry Allen Moe of the Guggenheim Foundation, requesting that his application be reopened. At this point, John has received some of the most recognized fellowships and awards in the art world, studied at some of the most highly regarded institutions, and traveled the world serving as a representative of American art, accumulating international knowledge and spreading his passion and talent with every corner of the globe. Though we do not have his final application, it is no mental leap to assume that he had a round up of enthusiastic and recognizable references as well. 

A letter from the Guggenheim Foundation awarding John Rhoden a fellowship in 1961.

On May 22, 1961, John Rhoden was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to cover two periods of time to “devote himself to creative sculpture.” 

John’s journey with the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship is a beautiful story in perseverance and achieving success beyond one’s wildest dreams. Looking at the remaining evidence of this journey, I can’t help but think that each time John must have thought, “what else can I possibly do to be worthy of this?” 

He went from a well-connected young artist with a respectable education to an Ivy League educated and decently recognized young professional to a highly educated, highly rewarded, internationally recognized, artist-representative of the United States. Each phase of his life expanded his world and each ceiling he broke opened new possibilities. When his achievements were not “enough” he kept pushing forward until his career surpassed anything the John that first applied in 1945-1946 could have imagined. 

This story is one that shows both how relatable and how special John was. It is a beautiful lesson in how not to allow rejection defeat you, but rather inspire you to assess where you are, where you could be, and what you could do to get there. 

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

NEH Grant Project Update

Though the PAFA campus remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are pleased to announce that work on the NEH Project – Rediscovering John Rhoden recommences remotely this week!

Due to the present circumstances, we are operating at a somewhat limited capacity and, after over three months away, we will be taking some time to refamiliarize ourselves with the work at hand. Remotely, we are able to continue cataloging our digitized holdings, writing blog posts, and exploring different approaches for curating and presenting the digitized Rhoden papers.

This time away from the project has given us the opportunity to reflect on our work. The preservation and promotion of the tangible remnants of John Rhoden’s legacy is an important and exciting responsibility. We feel so privileged to be able to continue our work to make this legacy widely accessible. 

We will continue to update you as we learn more about how COVID-19 will impact our ability to return to the physical collection. For now, we will return to regular blog posts and updates on our continued progress. 

Kelin Baldridge
Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.