Harlem Renaissance Reached around the World

Article excerpt

The 1920s decade was the time of Prohibition and speak-easies, of flappers and the charleston - for blacks and whites alike. Nightspots jumped with gospel, jazz and the blues. The wealthy of both races visited New York's Harlem for chic nightclubs such as the Savoy and the Cotton Club.

With the new freedoms between the world wars, the arts exploded for black Americans with an energy never seen before - in all the arts, including music, dance, film, photography, painting and sculpture.

Now, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washingtonians can visit the eye- and ear-catching exhibition, "Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance," which chronicles this far-reaching and still-present black art phenomenon. Seeds of both the civil rights and women's movements were planted with the Harlem Renaissance, which began in 1918 and lasted until the Depression era.

Viewers will find that the term "Harlem Renaissance" is a misnomer; more accurate is the "New Negro Movement," a term coined by influential black philosopher and educator Alain Locke. Organizers have worked hard to clarify just what this renaissance was. The show is not only about Harlem, and not just about blacks.

What's important to learn from the exhibit is that the artists of the time were white as well as black and that the Harlem Renaissance stretched from Africa through Europe to the Caribbean and the Americas.

Curators Richard J. Powell of Duke University and David A. Bailey of London's Institute of International Visual Arts divided the show into six thematic sections. Though heavily loaded with underlying philosophies, the exhibit is so stunningly handsome that one can just skip the ideas and soak up the beauty. Films and photos mix well with paintings and sculpture, while music pulsates throughout the exhibit. The show was organized by London's Hayward Gallery and the Corcoran.

Consider Chicago artist Archibald J. Motley's "Blues" (1929), a sharply angled, vibrantly colored rendition of a black nightclub. Men and woman dressed in reds and blacks wrap around each other in the densely packed room. Trumpets and clarinets blare. The women enjoy cigarettes and liquor along with the men.

Set in a Parisian "black and tan" club, where blacks from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States came to hear the latest black American music, the painting brims with wine bottles, musicians, instruments and seemingly disembodied arms and legs. Motley (1891-1981) must have been influenced by Pablo Picasso's and Georges Braque's dry intellectual cubism during his 1929 visit to Paris, but his compositions exude joy and sensuality. The show contains enough of his paintings for viewers to enjoy the verve and great sense of life in his work.

Motley's version of modernism, the early 1900s art movement that rejected detailed objective representation, was but one artistic path open to black artists at the time. Locke, who coined the term "New Negro" in 1925, urged black artists to tackle both sophisticated urban subjects like Motley's and a "primitivism" derived from African art. Locke believed a new spirituality could be found in what he called the "primitivistic" approach.

In his essay "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts," he challenged younger artists to draw upon the power of African art, as European avant-garde artists such as Picasso had done. One was Lois Mailou Jones (born 1905), who worked locally as well as in Boston, New York, Paris and Haiti. While in Paris in 1938, Miss Jones drew on both cubist and African imagery, effectively juxtaposing angular forms and African masks in "Les Fetiches."

Another primitive artist was William H. Johnson (1901-1970), who worked in Scandinavia, a region friendlier to black artists than his own country. …