African-American art didn't spring to life fully formed during the 1920s.
Long before then, self-taught black artist Joshua Johnson was competing for portrait commissions in early 1800s Baltimore, while African-American painter Robert S. Duncanson was winning acclaim for the
Still, no one can ignore how the great migrations of the early 1900s led to an explosion of artistic energy among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who fled chronic poverty and hardening segregation laws to make new lives in such places as Harlem.
Just take a look at two 1920s photos in the newest exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, where James Van Der Zee — who once worked as a waiter in the dining room of the Hotel Chamberlin at Old Point Comfort — explores the character of aspiring black New Yorkers.
In both "Evening Attire" and "Studio Portrait of a
Often he spent so much time dressing his subjects and arranging the emblematic, prop-heavy Edwardian settings in which they posed that he struggled to complete more than three photo sessions a day. Then there were all the darkroom touch-ups he used to make his portraits even better.
"I tried to see that every picture was better-looking than the person," said Van Der Zee, who photographed thousands of middle-class blacks as well as such black celebrities as singer Mamie Smith, poet Countee Cullen and dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
"That was my style."
Such personal, racially self-conscious passion crops up often in "African-American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond," which boasts 100 works from the renowned African-American holdings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
And few examples are more striking than the 1934 self-portrait by Malvin Gray Johnson, who left Greensboro, N.C. at 16 to study art in New York, survived
By itself, the likeness offers a extraordinary synthesis of Impressionist, Cubist and African influences, not to mention the hat-in-hand intimacy of the gaze with which Johnson looks back at the viewer. But combined with a second work in which Johnson portrays two earnest farm boys from Virginia's Blue Ridge in their coveralls and bare feet, it's a landmark chapter in a quintessentially American tale of aspiration.
How tragic that Johnson, who had only recently made the cover of Art Digest, died before he could push his work even further.
In a 1940 landscape titled "Sowing," South Carolinian William H. Johnson embraces his rural roots, too, transforming a common farm scene into a stylized, near-abstract dance of shapes and colors that pits human toil and draft animal power against the earth.
Mississippi-born Richmond Barthe pursues an equally archetypal vision in his 1930 bronze sculpture "Blackberry Woman," melding influences from African art and classical Western portraiture into a strong, angular and graceful likeness inspired by the people of the coastal region where he grew up.
In addition to celebrating the dignity of rural blacks tied to the land, many works here explore the new lives of African-American migrants, including Allan Rohan Crite's bustling 1936 portrait of black schoolgirls in "School's Out."
Far darker is the narrative in "Shotgun, Third Ward #1," which was painted by former
Even with their church reduced to smoldering ruins, however, the black children of this poor Houston neighborhood continue to play — and an elderly man holds up a lantern as if it were a beacon.
Don't miss it.
Erickson can be reached at email@example.com and 757-247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"African-American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond"
Where: Muscarelle Museum of Art, off
When: Through Jan. 6
Info: 757-221-2700; http://www.wm.edu/muscarelle