A Beacon of the Harlem Renaissance

Article excerpt

Aaron Douglas's paintings and illustrations pulsate with the energy and optimism of the Harlem Renaissance, that extraordinary flowering of African-American culture that burst forth in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. While he was not the first black artist to find inspiration in his African heritage, he was the first to consistently blend African imagery with contemporary subject matter and in modernist forms. Douglas, who has been called "the father of black American art," became the premier visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance.

Today, his is not as familiar a name as other luminaries from that era, such as Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, or Zora Neale Hurston. But the organizers of "Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist," a retrospective exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, hope to bring the artist and his work to a wider audience.

The exhibition is the first major retrospective since the artist's death in 1979 and brings together nearly 100 works that span much of his distinguished career.

The exhibition is something of a homecoming for Douglas, who was born in 1899 in Topeka, Kan. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1922, where he was the star of the fine arts department. For two years afterward, he taught art in Kansas City, Mo.

In 1924, Douglas was introduced to Charles Johnson, the founder and editor of Opportunity, the official journal of the National Urban League. Johnson needed illustrators for his magazine and urged Douglas to move east. He moved to New York the next year. "You just watch," he wrote to Alta Sawyer, his future wife. "Things are going to break and break fast."

And break they did. No sooner did Douglas arrive in New York than he connected with central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including the scholar-editor W.E.B. Du Bois and writer-philosopher Alain Locke. Within months he was contributing illustrations and cover art to leading black publications, including Opportunity and the NAACP publication, The Crisis, edited by Du Bois.

An early example of Douglas's graphic style is the 1926 cover he produced for Fire!!, an ambitious, single-issue journal of black art and literature. It evokes the magazine's incendiary tone abstractly through the use of bold areas of red and black. He incorporates Art Deco design elements and typography with the image of a sphinx (in the 1920s, Egypt stood for Africa), and introduces what became one of his signature elements: slanted, upward sloping eyes, reminiscent of Dan sculpture from the Ivory Coast. …