Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2015
Natalie A. Mault, ed. The Visual Blues Exh. cat. Baton Rouge: LSU Museum of Art, 2014. 88 pp.; 64 color ills. Paper $40.00 (9780615878300)
Exhibition schedule: LSU Museum of Art, Baton Rouge, March 8–July 13, 2014; Telfair Museums, Savannah, January 30–May 3, 2015

In his contribution to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition The Visual Blues, R. A. Lawson writes, “The Harlem Renaissance could not have happened in the South, but it could not have happened without the South” (31; emphasis in original). This statement deftly establishes the raison d’être of the exhibition: to interpret the Harlem Renaissance as a northern phenomenon indebted to its southern musical roots in blues and jazz music. The book draws upon earlier studies that paired African American music and visual arts such as The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, edited by Graham Lock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Donna Cassidy’s Painting the Musical City: Jazz and Cultural Identity in American Art, 1910–1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), and Richard J. Powell’s traveling exhibition and accompanying catalogue The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism (Washington, DC: Washington Project for the Arts, 1989). Complicating the roots and span of the Harlem Renaissance well beyond the confines of New York has been an important and ongoing endeavor. However, despite the catalogue’s notable heralding of its southern roots, the text does not fully explore this cultural migration or the undeniable existence of the Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem, including Louisiana, where the exhibition begins. New Orleans native Florestine Perrault Collins, for example, was as much a “New Negro” photographer as her Harlem contemporary James VanDerZee, yet she oddly finds no place in this exhibition. The relationship between northern and southern cultures, broadly defined, and how this relationship manifests itself in the “visual blues” stimulates each chapter in the book, yet the precise meaning of this term remains elusive to the project as a whole.

Margaret Rose Vendryes contributes the catalogue’s first essay, “Shake that Thang,” a wonderful exploration of how an artist translates sound into vision. As she writes, “Corporal movements, here and then gone, become nostalgia even before the tune has ended. Such fleeting moments are difficult to capture, yet artists of the Harlem Renaissance succeeded in conveying the sight, the feel, and the sound of dancers and the music that stirred them” (13). Vendryes investigates depictions of music and movement in the work of artists including Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston, Ellis Wilson, and VanDerZee. The chapter provides the first reading of how one might understand “the visual blues.” Vendryes looks for visual equivalents of music, locating them within illustrations of dance, such as Alston’s Lindy Hop at the Savoy (ca. late 1930s), as well as the movement of bodies and architecture in Hale Woodruff’s Sunday Promenade (ca. 1935). Alston’s nondescript setting allows his dancers dynamic, free-form movements in space. Woodruff’s black-and-white linocut feels completely different in subject and form. Vendryes describes it as “a visual, rather than a musical, score for a Deep South blues tune” (14), but where exactly is the blues located in this set of well-dressed promenading women leaving church? The pairing of these works suggests the intriguing, but at times perplexing, broadness in which the “visual blues” are being interpreted throughout the text.

In “Blues, Jazz, and the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance,” John Lowe contextualizes the allure of Africa within European and American circles and the international vogue for the black “primitive.” Noting interest among black artists and writers in exploring an oft-mythologized African heritage, Lowe posits this trend in artists including performer Josephine Baker, painter William H. Johnson, and poet Countee Cullen. Discussing the African origins of blues and jazz music, Lowe notes that the repetition and improvisation central to blues and jazz music can also be found in the poetry, prose, and visual expression of the period. He considers how an array of artists drew from African and/or southern U.S. heritage while transforming it into the “new” and modern, stressing black artistry, adaptability, and innovation.

Lawson begins “Hearing the Blues in the Art of the Harlem Renaissance” with a discussion of the African American coping mechanism of “signifying”—a technique of coding language in order to speak to one’s circumstances without directly implicating the dominant (white) culture. He follows with a reference to Du Boisian double-consciousness, the identity fragmentation that comes with being, in W. E. B. Du Bois’s words, “an American, a Negro.” First positioning black identity as distinct, Lawson complicates this by then considering its implicit Americanness. In his discussion of the Great Migration, he ties black agency to broader American strivings for renewal and rebirth, referencing Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential historicization of the settling of the western frontier. Lawson thus importantly situates the broader cultural context into which Renaissance ideals of “newness” are found. The chapter could benefit from greater contextualization, however. Lawson writes, for example, “The visual blues did what the musical blues did, relating black life in black ways of knowing” (37), followed by a reference to Woodruff’s Card Players (1930), which he describes as depicting “grifters.” Yet this work depicts card playing among the “Negro Colony” in Paris in a style that cites Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso as well as Alain Locke’s encouragement of the study of African art. This context seems a better way of understanding the work than reducing it to “black ways of knowing.”

In the final chapter, Natalie A. Mault considers patronage during the Harlem Renaissance, noting the relative financial stability enjoyed by jazz musicians and performers in comparison to visual artists and writers. Discussing Charlotte Osgood Mason, patron of Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes, among others, Mault notes the problematic expectations of well-meaning white patrons, yet does not fully elaborate this similar predicament in her discussion of the role of the Harmon Foundation and Carl Van Vechten. As so much scholarly attention is paid to white patrons, however, Mault importantly discusses black patrons, including Charles S. Johnson, and the role of commercial galleries in supporting black art. Her endnotes in this chapter provide invaluable references for further study of these important networks of patronage. The book ends with artists’ biographies and beautiful color reproductions of the work included in the exhibition. The show and catalogue represent a rich variety of artists; while we may expect the inclusion of Douglas, Johnson, and Archibald Motley, Jr., in a book on visual blues, less-studied artists such as painter Jay Robinson and photographers John Gutmann and Marion Palfi are a fruitful and welcome addition to the larger Renaissance discourse.

Overall, the book could benefit from further contextualization. Multiple chapters reference Locke, editor of The New Negro (1925) and foremost scholar to support, historicize, and critique African American art. The authors mention Locke’s encouragement of black music and the arts, yet overlook the reality of disputes over “appropriate” methods of black expression during this period. Lawson writes of jazz as a vital and new art form, immediately connecting it to Locke’s celebration of a “new psychology” and “new spirit” (37). At the same time, jazz music cannot be uncritically connected with Locke’s affirmation of the “New Negro,” as he described jazz as a superficial and vulgar form of black artistry, dismissing the vogue for these musical styles. Locke instead championed the endurance of black folk spirituals. The struggle between Locke’s middle-class politics of respectability and younger artists’ call for a deeper engagement with issues of alternative lifestyles and sexualities are briefly referenced (27), yet the ideological rift that publications like Ebony and Topaz (1927) and Fire!! (1926) symbolize between the older black intelligentsia (Du Bois, Locke, etc.) and younger artists (Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, etc.) goes unexplored. Vital to understanding the complexity of the Renaissance is that there was no agreed-upon agenda; many different (and often conflicting) methods and ideas about how to construct a “New Negro” flourished aesthetically and conceptually. The variety of the works in the exhibition makes this breadth apparent, although this reality is not flushed out in the essays.

In reading the distinct chapters and viewing the individual artworks in the exhibition, I also found myself pondering where exactly one locates this “visual blues.” Is it about motion conveyed visually? Does it mean having the blues? Does it convey carrying on despite hardship? Can it take on any of these qualities? The inclusion of Lois Mailou Jones’s A Student at Howard (1947) suggests it could even denote the mere representation of a black person. Also, in incorporating the work of Richmond Barthé, why include two heads as representative of a sculptor so adept at depicting dancing bodies? Much of the provocative works discussed throughout the book require further formal analysis that speaks to their intricacies, particularly as they are so brilliantly diverse. Each chapter in the book is succinct; the text is designed to be accessible and enjoyable to museum-going patrons, and it more than achieves that. Readers will undeniably take from it a better understanding of the visual and literary contributions of the Harlem Renaissance and their relationship to music and dance. Yet the term “visual blues” offers a loose categorization of disparate works, many of which speak directly to music and dance, but some which render this theme fraught. But perhaps it is unnecessary to quibble over this notable attempt to organize and speak to the elusive qualities of musical and visual genres; as Vendryes observes, “The blues were never just about being blue” (20).

Phoebe Wolfskill
Associate Professor, Department of American Studies and African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University