Harlem Renaissance

Organized by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Harlem Renaissanceincluded more than 100 paintings, sculptures, and photographs by artists such as Richmond Barthé, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, William H. Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald J. Motley Jr., James VanDerZee, and others. From the “vogue” of Harlem in the twenties to the Great Depression in the thirties, artists created innovative works that expressed the uniqueness of their experiences as African American artists, while participating in larger developments in American art.

Harlem Renaissance marked the first exhibition of African American art at the Museum in more than 20 years. Organized thematically, Harlem Renaissance explored a number of subjects, including Harlem as a literary center, portraiture and the “New Negro,” life in Paris and abroad, the influence of European modernism and African art, as well as images related to daily life, African American history, and the South. The exhibition also examined the idea of Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance as a later artistic subject, through works by Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold. Highlights included Aaron Douglas’s The Creation (1927), Palmer Hayden’s Nous Quatre à Paris (We Four in Paris) (ca. 1930), Archibald J. Motley Jr.’s Jockey Club (1929), and Faith Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997).

Illustrations for books and publications revealed Harlem as a literary and artistic center. The exhibition included an original copy of The New Negro (1925), an important anthology edited by Alain Locke, in addition to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), which featured illustrations by Aaron Douglas.Harlem Renaissance also explored issues of representation in African American art, featuring portraits and portrait “types” by artists such as Winold Reiss and Malvin Gray Johnson.

Harlem Renaissance displayed the types of works artists created while living and traveling abroad. Throughout the twenties and thirties, numerous artists traveled to Paris where they received instruction, visited museums, and escaped the restrictions of segregation. Painted while living in the South of France, William H. Johnson’s Village Houses, Cagnes-sur-Mer (ca. 1928-1929) reflects the influence of European expressionism.

The exhibit showed the influence of African art, through works such as West Coast artist Sargent Johnson’s copperMask (1933) and Malvin Gray Johnson’s painting Self-Portrait (1934). During this period, many artists turned to their own lives and experiences for inspiration. Seeking to create accurate depictions of African American life and culture, artists portrayed a variety of subjects and styles. From urban life to folklore and the South, artists sought to be fresh and modern in their portrayals of life. Examples included Archibald J. Motley Jr.’s Saturday Night (1935) as well as William H. Johnson’s Jacobia Hotel (1930) and Landscape with Sun Setting, Florence, South Carolina (1930).

Harlem Renaissance also featured works related to African American history, which became an important theme among artists by the thirties and during the era of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Artist Hale Woodruff’sNegroes with Jackson at New Orleans (1934) reflects this new interest and the stylistic influence of the Mexican muralists. Jacob Lawrence also turned to history on numerous occasions throughout his career, depicting scenes from the life of important historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman in Daybreak – A time to Rest (1967).

The period’s lasting influence was also explored in later depictions of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age, through Romare Bearden’s Jazz: (Chicago) Grand Terrace – 1930s (1964) and Faith Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997).

In addition to painting and sculpture, the exhibit highlighted photography as an important medium of artistic expression during the Harlem Renaissance. Photographers such as James VanDerZee captured the people and activities of Harlem, while others, such as James Latimer Allen and author and Harlem enthusiast Carl Van Vechten, captured the likenesses of notable Harlemites and Renaissance figures. Harlem Renaissance also displayed photographs of Oklahoma City’s African American community during this period, which includes musician Charlie Christian, the young author Ralph Ellison, and the area known as “Deep Deuce.”

Harlem Renaissance also included early short musical films of the period, featuring the first filmed appearances of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, and Bessie Smith. These films reveal the astonishing musical talent during the Harlem Renaissance as well as a visual document of black urban life in the 1920s and 30s.

Lenders to the exhibition included the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

A catalogue and audio tour accompanied the exhibition.


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