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
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. …