Rethinking a Renaissance

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

‘Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance,” an exhibition opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, bills itself as a post-modern inquiry into the outpouring of creative energy that ignited America’s black community in uptown Manhattan during the 1920s.

What post-modern means, in this case, is that the show attempts to transform the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s from a regional movement into an international one, by placing it in a panoramic setting.

Toward that end, “Rhapsodies in Black” deals with film, music and literature, as well as visual art. And, in addition to the celebrated painters associated with the Harlem Renaissance--Jacob Lawrence, Archibald J. Motley Jr, Aaron Douglas--the show includes work by Edward Burra, a white Englishman who visited Harlem in the ‘30s, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, photographers Walker Evans and Doris Ulmann, Man Ray, and Winold Reiss, a white Austrian whose drawings reflect his interest in classifying “racial types.”

“In treating the Harlem Renaissance as an international movement that included different races, the show becomes much more than just a package of black art for black people, and that appealed to us,” says Howard Fox, LACMA’s contemporary art curator who helped oversee the installation of the show.


The show originated at the Hayward Gallery in London, and was jointly curated by Richard J. Powell, an art history professor at Duke University who has written several books on black culture, and David Bailey, a British artist and writer who was a founding member of Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers.

“The seed for this show was planted in 1993 when I saw an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s painting cycle, ‘The Migration Series,’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” says Bailey of Lawrence’s landmark work, half of which is owned by MOMA, and half by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

“I thought about bringing it to England for a show, but I felt Lawrence’s work should be seen within the context of how it was created,” continues Bailey, speaking by phone from his home in London. “Initially I felt it would be enough to also show the work of Lawrence’s two mentors, Augusta Savage and Aaron Douglas, but then I started thinking about work by his contemporaries. One thing led to another, and I concluded that you can’t understand this work without also experiencing certain films, pieces of music and writings of the period.

“I finally realized I wasn’t interested in doing a black show, rather, I wanted to make connections that haven’t previously been made linking Modernism, Primitivism and African culture--and that’s why artists like Man Ray and Sir Jacob Epstein are included. We’re trying to encourage a conversation that’s never taken place before.”


A British scholar presenting the Harlem Renaissance as an international movement prompts the obvious question: What was going on in England’s black community during the ‘20s?

“In terms of literature, political activism and the performing arts, there was lots going on, but there were very few black British visual artists then,” says Bailey. “Generally speaking, the racial politics of our two countries are completely different.”

Centered in a 15-block area north of Central Park, between 130th and 145th streets, the Harlem Renaissance has been described as more a state of mind than an art movement, and precisely when it began and ended is a subject of considerable debate.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog) makes the case that the Harlem Renaissance was preceded by an earlier black renaissance that occurred in America in 1900, when Booker T. Washington began expounding his vision of “a new Negro for a new century.”


Poet and writer Langston Hughes, on the other hand, marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance with the 1921 opening of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s all-black revue, “Shuffle Along,” and said it ended with the stock market crash of 1929. “White people had much less money to spend on themselves, and almost none to spend on Negroes,” Hughes wrote at the time.

Bailey dismisses 1929 as marking the end of the Renaissance, on the grounds that “it’s a definition based on patronage. When the stock market crashed, white attention did shift elsewhere, however the visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance continued to make work throughout the ‘30s. The renaissance didn’t end--it just fanned out and became less insular.”

Powell says the curtain came down in 1939, when Jacob Lawrence unveiled his painting cycle, “Toussaint L’Ouverture Series”, a 41-panel homage to the slave who launched the 1797 revolution in Haiti that led to the establishment of the first black republic in the west. (Now 81, Lawrence is the only artist in the show who is still living).

Obviously, there’s lots of quibbling about dates, but everyone agrees that Lawrence’s 1941 60-panel series based on a key chapter of black history, “The Migration Series” (which is not included in the show), reveals the real roots of the Renaissance.


The Great Migration was a response to the failure of Reconstruction, the period from 1867--1877 following the Civil War, when the South was to reorganize itself and incorporate blacks as equals. Segregation persisted in the South, however, and blacks continued to be denied access to equal education. Jobs were non-existent as well, so although blacks were technically free, they were starving. These conditions led more than a million Southern African Americans to migrate north in search of work. Thus, black America began its transformation from a rural culture into an urban one, that reached a grand crescendo in Harlem.

Lawrence’s “Toussaint L’Ouverture Series,” is on view at LACMA, as is a substantial body of work by Aaron Douglas, the premier painter of the Harlem Renaissance.

“Douglas worked in a kind of tonal Cubist style, and created dauntingly ambitious painting cycles exploring black history--his work often explored the spread of black culture from the south to the north,” explains Ilene Susan Fort, the LACMA curator of American art who worked with Fox on installing the show. “We tried to bring together an entire cycle of his paintings, but some of them are too fragile to move. The show does, however, include a small chapel hung with five Douglas panels.

“We’re devoting a room to portraiture, and another gallery centers on eight paintings by Archibald J. Motley Jr., a Chicago artist who painted vivid scenes of black nightclubs and street life. We’re also showing a work that won’t be at any of the show’s seven other venues: Sargent Claude Johnson’s ‘Chester,’ a terra cotta sculpture LACMA acquired last year.


“Johnson was a San Francisco artist who was considered the most progressive black sculptor of the period, and ‘Chester’ is one of his key works,” says Fort. “It hasn’t been seen since 1930 when it disappeared into a private collection in Venice, Italy, so we’re thrilled to have it.”

The art of the Harlem Renaissance tends to be so vibrantly upbeat that the casual observer would hardly guess that unemployment in Harlem during the ‘20s was at 50%, or that the death rate there was 42% higher than in any other area of New York City.

“These artists didn’t dwell on the poverty, because they were trying to lift people up and instill a sense of pride,” Fort explains. “Whites, by the way, did the same thing with the Ashcan School, which focused on working class immigrants in New York--those painters didn’t show the dirt either.”

“I guess you could fault artists like [photographer] James VanDerZee for creating false depictions of Harlem life, but that was also the period when America produced its first black millionaires,” adds Bailey referring to blacks like A’leila Walker, heiress to a fortune made in black hair straighteners and skin lightening creams.


The popularity of such products gives some idea of the climate of the times. This was an era when images of Little Black Sambo were a common decoration on kitchenware, and the Harlem Renaissance came on the heels of the Red Summer of 1919--a season given that name because of the thousands of lynchings that took place. Lynchings escalated throughout the ‘20s and into the early ‘30s too, an increase that’s been attributed to a mood of xenophobia triggered by the massive waves of immigration that swept into America at the turn of the century.

The theories of Sigmund Freud--who drew parallels between the sub-conscious mind and things primitive and erotic--were also just beginning to be widely circulated, and they made the international intelligentsia receptive to black culture in a way it had never been before. Stage backdrops at Harlem clubs such as the Apollo and the Cotton Club were often decorated with jungle imagery, and the French were especially prone to project notions of the noble savage onto blacks.

Harlem was a place freighted with racial identity, and it served as a repository for these newly minted white fantasies about blacks. In fact, the swankest nightclubs served an exclusively white clientele; in other words, blacks could perform for whites but they couldn’t drink with them. Consequently, the Harlem Renaissance has been dismissed by some as a bourgeois playpen for affluent whites that’s been retrospectively endowed with cultural legitimacy by academia.

Bailey concedes “there was a form of French colonialization that forced blacks into stereotypical roles while appearing to embrace them. Nonetheless, Josephine Baker said in her writings that France was the only place that allowed her some mobility.


“Some people definitely exploited the primitive thing, but others did not,” Bailey adds. “Midway through Paul Robeson’s career he began to feel that he’d been naive and allowed himself to be manipulated. At that point he became conscious of how his image was used, and tried to have more control over it.”

It’s been said that the Harlem Renaissance’s most lasting achievements were musical; by the time things got rolling in Harlem, [Czech composer] Antonin Dvorak had declared the Negro spiritual to be America’s first authentic contribution to world culture. The innovative stride piano of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson continues to shape popular music, and the jazz of the period achieved an unprecedented marriage of the primitive and the modern. Duke Ellington’s brilliant synthesis of classical structures and jazz inarguably stands as one of the great musical milestones of the century.

Film clips of Harlem musicians of the era--Ellington, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, among many others--will screen at LACMA on a continuous video loop. Also installed in the galleries are listening stations where museum-goers can select from nine hours of historic jazz recordings dating back to 1914, compiled by Paul Oliver.

Equally significant was the black literature of the ‘20s. It was then that the rhythm of black speech was captured on the page for the first time by writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Countee Cullen.


“This is a visual art museum so we can’t dwell too much on text, but we are including some of the publications, many of which have a strong visual component,” says Fort.

A glass cabinet display of books gives little idea of the significance of black writers, publishers and editors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Alain Locke; it was, however, largely through their efforts to make periodicals and anthologies of black writers widely available, that black Americans began to envision a new place for themselves in the world.

This revolution in consciousness was driven underground, first by the Depression, then by World War II, and it didn’t resurface again until two decades later--in the form of the Civil Rights Movement.



“Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5005 Wilshire Blvd. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.; Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon-8 p.m. Ends Oct. 19. Adults, $6; students and seniors, $4; children, $1.