Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

Article excerpt

Reviewed by Dale Volberg Reed, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is the coauthor, with John Shelton Reed, of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South.

The cultural life of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s was largely the creation of southern expatriates. Think only of the writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson; the musicians Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Eubie Blake; and the painters William H. Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, and Archibald Motley Jr. (And note, by the way, the relative obscurity of the visual artists today.) Others, not born in the South, established lasting ties with the region, like the painter Aaron Douglas, who spent his life at Fisk University. For these artists, the South was often their subject, and even when it wasn't it was likely to be lurking somewhere in the background.

Rhapsodies in Black opened last summer at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank and will be coming to Washington's Corcoran Gallery through June 1998. The brainchild of Richard J. Powell of Duke University and Londoner David A. Bailey, the exhibit offers a gracious plenty of works by and about African Americans in the heyday of modernism: many artists, and several works by each, including three of Aaron Douglas's giant, pastel, visionary cubist paintings and the entire "Toussaint L'Ouverture" series by Jacob Lawrence. (It is so rewarding to see this whole that I won't even argue about why I would have preferred Lawrence's "Migration" series. Besides, part of the fun of this show is second-guessing the curators.)

The generous size of the exhibition allows for provocative juxtapositions and for contrasts between high and low culture, black and white artists, local and global significance--all calculated, of course. …

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