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While many scholars celebrate Aaron Douglas as the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, there remains a widespread unfamiliarity with the diversity of his artistic production and his manifold contributions to the New Negro Movement. Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, the first nationally touring retrospective of his work, attends to this disparity. Organized by Susan Earle and coordinated by Stephanie Fox Nappe for the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, the exhibition showcases Douglas’s output in a variety of media, displaying oil paintings, woodcuts, pen-and-ink drawings, book and record jackets, magazine covers, illustrations, and murals. In doing so, it invites viewers to recognize the artist’s centrality to African American cultural life during the Harlem Renaissance, to integrate his work into the narrative of American art history, and to question a common presumption in modern art criticism that aesthetics and social engagement are disparate enterprises.
Born in 1899, Douglas was raised in Topeka, Kansas. After graduating from high school in 1917 and the School of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1922, he accepted a position as art instructor at the segregated Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. Although Douglas was a reader of The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Race—the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—it was the arrival of Survey Graphic’s March 1925 issue, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” that prompted the young artist to resign his position and move to New York City. Soon after he arrived, Douglas initiated art study with Winold Reiss, the German émigré artist whose sensitive portraits of African Americans appeared in that propitious Harlem issue of Survey Graphic. He met, too, the prominent leaders of the New Negro movement, Alain Locke and W.E.B. DuBois, and many of its young artists and intellectuals, including writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, poet Langston Hughes, and novelist Wallace Thurman. From that point on, Douglas’s visual language appeared in and on magazines, books, and buildings across the country and became a virtual trademark of Harlem Renaissance creative work. After accepting a teaching position at Fisk University in 1938, he lived and worked in Nashville until his death in 1979.
Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist presents Douglas’s work chronologically, beginning with the artist’s cover design for his high school yearbook (1917) and closing with art produced by his successors. The opening gallery establishes the exhibition’s organizational structure by displaying works Douglas produced during the first decade of his career. It includes the artist’s portrait of Hurston (1926); magazine covers for Crisis and Opportunity (the official publication of the Urban League); dust-jackets for Countee Cullen’s edited volume of African American poetry, Caroling Dusk (1927); Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) and Arthur Huff Fauset’s For Freedom (1927), among others; and a series of woodblock prints inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Emperor Jones (1926). It exhibits, too, Douglas’s cover design for the one-issue journal, Fire! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists; illustrations for Paul Morand’s Charleston (1928) and other publications; a word-and-image collaboration with Hughes, published in Opportunity Art Folio (1926); and the cubist-inspired oil painting, Bird in Flight (1927).
In addition to highlighting Douglas’s command of various media, the first gallery introduces the artist’s lifelong visual vocabulary of silhouetted figures and overlapping forms. Influenced by European abstraction, Art Deco, and African masks, Douglas developed a modernist idiom flexible enough to reference Southern landscapes and Harlem nightlife, traditional spirituals and contemporary jazz. As museum visitors proceed through the show, they are able to witness Douglas’s continued use of graduated tones and saturated color as well as subtle and significant shifts in his compositional strategies and thematic choices. This initial gallery also underscores Douglas’s omnipresence in the New Negro movement. Following recent scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance,1 the exhibition presents the Harlem Renaissance as a multimedia, interdisciplinary movement that celebrated artistic collaboration. It visualizes this dynamism through Douglas’s interactions with virtually every major figure in the Renaissance, including its poets, novelists, musicians, sociologists, publishers, and dramatists.
The exhibition continues with Douglas’s illustrations for James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones (1928). Part of Johnson’s larger project of assembling and conserving African American folk creations of all kinds, God’s Trombones includes eight poems predicated on the antebellum preacher’s oratory and theology. Douglas created illustrations for the opening prayer and each of the seven sermons, and the exhibition presents a few of those images in multiple forms: as preliminary studies, gouache-on-paper originals, halftone reproductions, and oil-on-masonite paintings produced six and seven years after their original publication. This enables viewers to observe the development of the illustrations conceptually and stylistically, along with the disparate meanings they communicate depending on their context and media. It also shows the conversations that take place between and among Douglas’s works and those of his collaborators. For example, Douglas’s illustrations for Johnson’s poems “Listen, Lord” and “The Creation” echo his work for Hughes’s “Feet O’ Jesus,” creating a visual link between different poetic uses of the African American vernacular and interpretations of black religious experience. The result is a rich understanding of Douglas’s intervisuality and the diversity of ideas that animated the New Negro Movement.
The remaining galleries display Douglas’s persistent output of dust jackets, illustrations, and magazine covers alongside studies for his monumental murals. In these drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings, the artist initiates and works through a lifelong project of visualizing a “usable past” for African Americas that begins in Africa, continues in the American South, and ends in the urban North. Whether it is Harriet Tubman (1931) for Bennett College for Women in North Carolina, Aspects of Negro Life (1934) for the New York Public Library, Into Bondage and Aspiration for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, or the series of murals at Fisk University’s Cravath Memorial Library (1929–1930, 1965, and 1969–71), Douglas deploys a common iconography that narrates African American history and life. By including the studies for all these murals in a single area, Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist provides an opportunity to observe the process through which Douglas created and re-envisioned history in response to contemporary conditions and events. Moreover, it points to, but does not illustrate, Douglas’s relationship to the larger American art scene. It brings to mind Charles Sheeler’s clean lines and industrial imagery, Thomas Hart Benton’s celebration of folk culture, Ben Shahn’s attention to the working class, and the more general quest for a distinctly American art. Indeed, the exhibition sets the stage for a reconsideration of American art between the wars that places African American art at its center rather than the periphery.
By emphasizing simultaneously the development and diversity of Douglas’s work, the exhibition calls attention to more than the artist’s signature vocabulary and varied artistic practice: it stresses the wide range of audiences he reached. Whether they subscribed to the Crisis or Opportunity; danced and listened to live music at Club Ebony in Harlem or the College Inn Room at Chicago’s Sherman Hotel; read contemporary poetry and fiction; attended the Texas Centennial Exposition; or studied in Cravath Library, viewers engaged with Douglas’s art in many different ways. Douglas did not embrace modernist aesthetics to divorce art and culture; rather, he employed it to critique and celebrate American and African American life.
Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist does have its limitations. While it tries to situate Douglas within a larger genealogy, the lone example of Reiss’s work in the opening gallery and a few examples of art inspired by Douglas in the final room fail to account for the diversity of his influences and successors. Moreover, by ending the show with Douglas’s influence on the fine arts, the exhibition’s consistent attention to his facility in graphic design, illustration, and mural painting appears ancillary rather than central to his career. Finally, what might be called Douglas’s “private” works—his portraits and more conventional paintings produced and shown at exhibitions—are relegated generally to a side gallery, raising the question of how these objects fit into the artist’s general artistic practice and self-identification.
Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist and its accompanying catalogue bring together the latest scholarship on his work and the larger Harlem Renaissance. The result is a nuanced portrait of the artist that presents visitors and scholars with the opportunity to reassess his artistic project and situate it within the histories of the New Negro Movement, African American visual culture, American art, and artistic modernism generally.
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia
1 Including Richard Powell’s Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997); Martha Jane Nadell’s Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Anne Carroll’s Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Caroline Goeser’s Picturing the New Negro: Harlem Renaissance Print Culture and Modern Black Identity (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2006); and Amy Kirschke’s Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois And the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2007).
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