Harlem Renaissance and Social Realism was the topic of the day. From Barnard’s Zora Neale Hurston (author of Their Eyes Were Watching God et al), through the rise and era of Jazz to Portraits of Langston Hughes (poet), we traveled the early 1900’s (@ 1914- 1935) and were given glimpses through art how the migration of African Americans to northern cities impacted society, changed the urban landscape and influenced an entire culture.
As We listened and watched Kristin’s topic discussion, we felt we were the “Souls of the Black Folk” leaving the South, an agrarian life and moving into unprepared, congested neighborhoods, becoming what was coined, ” The New Negro”.
Winold Reiss, a key figure, mentor and teacher brings cubism and modernism to his paintings and series of bold illustrations of his interpretations of Harlem Jazz which became a mecca and an emblem of democracy, even for whites.
James Van Der Zee was a photographer and took incredible pictures like Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932. Although three years into the depression, it depicts the prosperity of the Urban African American. He was also the official photographer of UNIA which was founded as a movement to encourage the African American to identify and even go back to their African roots. He was a master of backdrops and special effects (early photo shopping back in the dark room) so everyone wanted their portrait taken by him.
Augusta Savage was a sculptor who showed her piece Lift every Voice and Sing in the 1939 World’s Fair but due to it being of plaster, not bronze (cost prohibited) all we have left are photos of it.
In cities like Detroit and Chicago, the same explosions of creativity are being explored and documented. Archibald Motley, of mixed race and married to a German white immigrant, lives in a white neighborhood but paints in particular, African Americans with varying degrees of color and ancestry and always in a positive light. His self-portrait from 1933 is full of overt symbolism. He paints the urbanity and the spirituality like in Holy Rollers, 1929 and Black Belt, 1934.
Other artists we visited were:
Aaron Douglas who specialized in murals (Harriet Tubman – Liberation, 1931) and did many series of works that demonstrated the legacy of oral tradition and history on canvas.
Palmer Hayden, who although untrained, spent a lot of time in Paris and with his talent painted such still lives as Fetiche et Fleurs, 1926, European, classic design but incorporating African Art such as a mask and a tribal cloth. In Midsummer Night in Harlem, 1936, he celebrates the community and in The Janitor who Paints, 1939-40 , he tries to break down stereotypes using his artist’s brush.
By far the most well known and famous, as well as prosperous painter was the successful, Jacob Lawrence. His Migration of the Negro series is 60 panels (all captioned) of strong narrative description using only three or four bold colors and in the style of dynamic cubism. He tells stories of how good housing grew scarce, how already situated and long time resident African Americans despised the migrants, poverty and hunger rose as the population expanded too quickly to meet the infrastructure demands. Half the panels are displayed in Washington, DC (odd numbers) and half are in NY at the Met.(evens). The last panel was a mass of migrants at the railroad station, in front of the tracks and the title is merely, “They Kept Coming.”
I was left with a new sense and understanding of what it must have been like then and accompanied with the high number of immigration pieces from last week’s tenement discussion, it made me appreciate the sacrifices people make for the following generations.
Next week, no lecture.
Someone asked me why I have no pictures with my synopsis of these lectures. Well, the room is dark, the slides shown do not photograph well and I usually have to find a seat in the back as it is quite popular. And I never upload photos I do not own or have permission to post.
I would urge you to go online and find these works on your own as followup, it would enhance your enjoyment of them.