In A Sudden Trip Home In The Spring, Alice Walker's Sarah Davis is a young, black woman studying at an exclusive women's college in New York. Sarah's experience mirrors that of Walker, who herself transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York City (an all-women's college until 1969) in 1963. Walker had originally attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1961 under a full scholarship.
In the story, Sarah mentions the common room just off the entrance of Talfinger Hall. The common room has been made over into a small art gallery with paintings by Chagall and other artists. Sarah's own room is plastered with reproductions by Gauguin, Rubens, Modigliani, and Picasso. The Rubens painting in her room is described as 'The Head Of A Negro.' Interestingly, Walker also mentions that Sarah's own paintings occupy a full wall; the paintings are all of black women. The female figures are described as 'matronly, massive of arm, with a weary victory showing in their eyes.'
The artists mentioned are all well-known for their avant-garde, dismissive attitudes toward conventionality. Their fiercely independent styles mirror Walker's own famously stubborn individuality in her writing. As an example of Ruben's unorthodox style, his 'Four Studies Of A Male Head' depicts four angles of an African male profile. Some experts hypothesize that these portraits may have been used to portray one of the Magi in Ruben's Adoration Of The Magi. Whatever one may say about Ruben's voluptuous nudes, he was certainly an artist who went against the grain of the typical Baroque artistic style. Indeed, African faces were rarely depicted in Renaissance and Baroque art, but Ruben painted several.
Picasso himself, interestingly, was one of the most important proponents of African influenced modernist art in the United States. He viewed the influence of African primitivism on his art as a 'means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires.' His Black Period saw him collecting African art, masks, and sculptures of all sorts. Like Alice Walker, Picasso viewed his art as a vehicle to discover the power of expression. His famous painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, of five African women with frightening and unconventional African mask-like faces, is a statement on the power of art to explore forbidden impulses and unconventional expressions of feminine power. This brings to mind Sarah's own unconventional paintings of African femininity in her room in A Sudden Trip Home.
Along with Chagall, Modigliani's own primitivism is well documented. His art often combined vastly different traditions, resulting in strange representations of the human form and condition. Gauguin's own fascination with primitivist elements is also well documented. Like his fellow artists, Gauguin incorporated African and Asian elements into his art, betraying the Western fascination with the spirituality of non-western cultures. He viewed his art as a philosophical exploration of the purpose of life.
It isn't surprising that Walker's Sarah Davis is entranced with such artistic figures in A Sudden Trip Home In The Spring. Walker herself was very much her own woman. At the height of the Black Power movement and its artistic equivalent, The Black Arts movement, Walker married a white Jewish man, Mel Leventhal. Despite accusations of betrayal to the cause of civil rights, Walker maintains that her modus operandi has always been to speak truth to power and to speak in such a way that is meaningful to a universal audience. As such, her writing has dealt with uncomfortable topics of incest, abortion, and rape within the African community, earning her accusations of insensitivity from the Black Arts community. Yet, she maintains that
"Black writers should direct their works towards an audience...that will appreciate what they have to say and profit from it. To write solely for a black audience is limiting and presumes too much...I think it is only important that we write from within ourselves and that we direct our efforts outward..."
So, Walker's inclusion of Gauguin, Chagall, Picasso, Modigliani, and Picasso into her short story is a nod to her own independent, feminist voice which refuses to be dictated to either by the white or black community. Walker's respect for individualism and freedom of expression is evident in all her prose. For more on Walker, please refer to:
Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn White