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Distributed July 25, 2004
Contact Mark Nickel

Prof. Kermit Champa, 64; highly respected scholar and author

Kermit Champa, the Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor of the History of Art and Architecture, died Thursday, July 22, 2004. The following obituary notice ran in the Providence Journal on Sunday, July 25, 2004.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Kermit Champa, 64, of Tannery Road, a professor of modern and contemporary art and architecture at Brown University, a widely published author and editor on French Impressionism and American Modernism, died Thursday at home after a battle with cancer.


Mr. Champa received a bachelor's degree in art history from Yale University, New Haven, Conn., in 1960, and a doctoral degree from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., in 1965. He returned to Yale as an assistant professor after graduating from Harvard.

He moved to Providence in 1970 to teach art history at Brown, and became a full professor in 1974. He was a former chairman of its art department.

In 1995, he was named the Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor in the history of art and architecture, a chair endowed by Phyllis and Charles M. Rosenthal in memory of their daughter, a 1988 honors graduate in art history who was among the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up by terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

He had been Andrea's faculty adviser while she was a student, believed she was going to pursue graduate studies in art history, and wrote in the February 1989 issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly that she was "one of the best students I've had."

Professor Champa was embroiled in a controversy in May 1989, when he decided to show the early classic, yet overtly racist D.W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, as part of his curriculum. The president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP denounced the plan to show a racist film, and insisted that a seminar be held after its screening to discuss its racial content.

"We were not presenting it as a socio-political document; we were presenting it as a piece of filmmaking." Mr. Champa said. "When the NAACP decided to insist it could not be that, in effect it made it not that."

After the screening was canceled, the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU opined that Brown would be opening itself to future censorship from other groups. But two years later, the film was shown as part of the film festival accompanying the Public Affairs Conference at Brown University.

A teacher and mentor, Professor Champa taught generations of art historians to appreciate the importance of all art while discerning the unique qualities of specific art objects.

His students thought highly of him, offering such comments as part of an online discussion on, Who is the greatest [living] academic speaker?, "I rather enjoy Kermit Champa, art history, Brown . . . soporific, but in a good way."

An accomplished scholar, in his work The Rise of Landscape Painting in France: Corot to Monet, he used the paradigm of symphonic music to provide a new explanation for the enhanced philosophical and intellectual importance of landscape painting.

His earliest publications appeared while he was still a graduate student, and his book German Painting of the 19th Century earned him the Officers' Cross, or German Order of Merit, from the former Federal Republic of Germany in 1971.

He also authored many critical articles for Artforum, Arts Magazine, Art Journal, Art News, and The New Criterion.

Recently, Professor Champa had become concerned over the way static art – painting, drawings and sculpture – has been neglected for art produced with a computer.

In an op-ed piece in the Providence Journal from Aug. 7, 1996, he wrote, "Ways must be found to capitalize on material presence as a worthwhile experience. The 'aura' of the real must be reinvented after nearly a century of erosion through reproductions. Static objects must be shown as preeminently interesting, and sufficient, when viewed with pieces with which they conversed or are conversing."

Mr. Champa also curated several major historical loan exhibitions at museums and galleries around the world, and for many of these shows he generated their scholarly catalogs.

A prolific public lecturer, he had spoken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, both in New York City, the Tate galleries in England, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In 1975, Esquire magazine voted him one of the 10 sexiest professors in America.

He was the husband of Judith Tolnick Champa, director of the Fine Arts Center Galleries at the University of Rhode Island. Born in Huntington, Pa., on Aug. 20, 1939, a son of Valentino A. Champa of Lancaster, Pa., and the late Gladys E. (Swiler) Champa, a stepson of Helen Champa of Lancaster, he had lived in Providence for many years.

Besides his wife, father and stepmother, he leaves two sons, Russell H. Champa of San Francisco and Anthony Champa of Seattle; and a daughter, Sarah B. Champa of Providence.

A memorial service will be held at a later date. Burial will be private.


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