More Than a Place
“Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance” is a show that means to break unexpected ground. In the galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the aim becomes very clear, very fast.
In the second room, Winold Reiss’ gorgeous pastel and pencil drawing “Harlem Girl I” (circa 1925) oscillates between ageless grandeur and up-to-the-minute stylishness. With her blunt shelf of jet-black hair, accentuated into a flat, almost abstract design element through the simple turn of her head, the young girl in the simple lace-trimmed white frock resounds with vivid echoes of the stylization in ancient Egyptian wall-paintings. A few years before, a mania for things North African had been launched with the discovery of the sumptuous tomb of King Tutankhamun. In a drawing that is part Realist observation, part Art Deco styling, part social and political polemic, Reiss deftly connected that modern enthusiasm for ancient art to the living world of Harlem.
The unexpected aspect of encountering this work is found in the simple fact that Reiss was white--a German emigre whose typological approach to illustrating the populace of Harlem is somewhat akin to that of contemporaneous German photographer August Sander. What, you wonder, are a white illustrator’s drawings doing in an exhibition of art of the Harlem Renaissance?
“Rhapsodies in Black” rightly keeps the work of African American artists at the epicenter of the story. The pioneering aesthetic of Aaron Douglas opens the show, in a suite of silhouette-like paintings that chronicles “Aspects of Negro Life.” The final room displays all 41 tempera images in Jacob Lawrence’s ambitious “Toussaint L’Ouverture” series, a narrative of the fitful founding of the first independent African American nation, in Haiti, painted when the precocious Lawrence was just 20. In between, work by such familiar artists as painter Lois Maillou Jones, photographer James VanDerZee and sculptor Augusta Savage are on view.
Black culture was flourishing in the 1920s and early 1930s, in the wake of massive migration from the agricultural South to the industrial North. World War I, whose vicious brutality had cataclysmic effects on subsequent European and American culture, played a fundamental role: Black American troops may have been forced to serve in segregated units, but they served nonetheless. Those who returned from the horrific battlefields of Europe chafed even more vigorously from the denial of equality in the U.S. wrought by Jim Crow.
However, the show is true to another historic facet of the New Negro Movement, one that--to my knowledge--hasn’t been examined in a museum presentation before. The Harlem Renaissance was the object of wide interracial and intercultural recognition. Including the work of Winold Reiss that features black subjects--as well as the similarly themed work of such other, even more significant white artists as Doris Ullman and Walker Evans--suggests another dimension of the movement’s influence.
So does the inclusion of artists like Archibald J. Motley Jr. and Sargent Johnson. Motley’s atmospheric painting “Jockey Club” (1929) shows visitors lingering in the radiant night air outside the famous Parisian blues club, while Johnson’s complex Cubist portrait drawing “Lenox Avenue” (circa 1938) melds the primitivist attitudes of much art produced under the auspices of the New Negro Movement with the Modernist interest in African sculpture. The presence of these and other such works reveals another facet to the story.
Motley and Johnson worked principally in Chicago and San Francisco, not Harlem. The small, Upper Manhattan neighborhood claimed perhaps the largest concentration of African Americans in any city, and New York was then well on its way to becoming the dominant cultural center of 20th century American life. But, artistically, Harlem was in many respects more powerful as a metaphor for the emergence of a lively and committed black cultural expression than it was as a piece of actual urban real estate. The term “Harlem Renaissance” is misleading if it’s taken to mean something strictly regional rather than as an intellectual cast of mind and a spiritual cohesiveness.
The exhibition, organized by the Hayward Gallery and Institute of Visual Arts, London, and Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, is very good at expanding the rather narrow scope within which the art of the Harlem Renaissance has usually been considered. The plural chosen for the its title, “Rhapsodies in Black,” plainly seems to suggest more than just the multiple viewpoints inevitably expressed by the variety of artists in any group show. Here, other “rhapsodies” are heard in the work of white artists deeply influenced by the African American world, as well as by black artists working in various localities in the diaspora.
Of course, the choice of the word “rhapsody” itself implies something notable about the New Negro Movement--namely, that its most powerful engines were literary. A rhapsody is an epic poem or an improvisational musical composition. In sheer numbers, the most powerful and far-reaching works to come out of the Harlem Renaissance were literary and musical rather than visual.
W.E.B. Dubois, Alain L. Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson--the list of major writers and musicians is extraordinary. They’re appropriately represented in the show through contextualizing materials, such as film clips, books and recordings. Few of the paintings, sculptures, photographs and drawings by the two dozen African American artists in the show reach the benchmark of contemporaneous literature and music.
One that surely does is Lawrence’s “Toussaint L’Ouverture” series--interestingly, itself an epic poem magnificently rendered in visual terms. The literary core of this and other series the artist made gives his work a popular accessibility, while the sophisticated Modernist vocabulary of planar, chromatically vibrant compositions stops you in your tracks.
Overall, the disparity in our response today to the work of the visual artists as opposed to the writers and musicians might partly be a function of familiarity. Through mechanical reproduction--books, recordings, films--writing and music can claim a breadth of distribution and impact that mostly one-of-a-kind painting and sculpture can’t match. Practically speaking, it’s easier to hear a Paul Robeson record these days than see, say, a William H. Johnson painting.
Similarly, the particularities of these different mediums might have had their own influence on the writers, musicians and artists themselves. Oral traditions, which are more closely related to writing and music, are more durable and portable than visual ones, which are more complicated to recover. A difficult history of slavery, Reconstruction and migration accommodates one set of traditions more readily than the other.
Whatever the case, “Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance” is a smallish (about 100 works) but thoroughly absorbing exhibition. Together with its excellent catalog, it happily broadens the view on a pivotal episode in American cultural history.
* “Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through Oct. 19. Closed Wednesdays.