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"Hale Woodruff, et al. - Visual Artists of the Harlem Renaissance" - portions of this piece are excerpted from «Umpteen Essays in Search of a Novel (1983-2023)»

Authors:
  • National Book Critics Circle

Abstract

Taken together, «I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100», along with Mary Schmidt-Campbell’s «An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden», are sure to enrich generalists’ understanding of twentieth-century African American art history.
[  ]
Kevin Brown
ey, Too, Sang America: Visual
Artists’ Harlem Renaissance*
In , Ohio’s state capital hosted a citywide festival commemorating the Harlem
Renaissance. Scholars and historians participated in forums on the movement’s
impact. Spoken-word and mixed-media artists local to Ohio or from Harlem gave
performances. Simultaneously, the Columbus Museum of Art mounted a centenary
retrospective. I, Too, Sing America: e Harlem Renaissance At  gave visual artists
from the Harlem Renaissance as well as their immediate successors the kind of close
reading the period’s literary artists had long enjoyed. Taken together, the exhibit and
companion volume, along with Mary Schmidt-Campbells recently published in-depth
study of one painter featured in the show, An American Odyssey: e Life and Work of
Romare Bearden, are sure to enrich generalists’ understanding of twentieth-century
African American art history.
e “Harlem” renaissance was the culturally insurgent tip of a very political
spear. It helps to think of the movement as an oshoot of what was then known as
the New Negro movement (c. –). e Ku Klux Klan was resurgent; there was
widespread violence against blacks. W.E.B. Du Bois, as editor of the NAACP magazine
e Crisis, was impatient with stereotypical images of the shuing, grinning, docile
“Old Negro,” and sought to reimage the black experience in America, believing the
arts were one benchmark by which a people’s worth was measured. One weapon in
Du Bois’s and others’ arsenal of attack upon racial discrimination, in the years before
and aer World War I, was a clear demonstration on the part of a “Talented Tenth” of
intellectual and cultural parity with the best and brightest the white world had to oer.
African American achievement in these elds, it followed logically, would repudiate
racist assumptions. Rival publications like Opportunity also adopted this strategy of
*An essay-review of:
I, T, S A: T H R  . Edited by Wil Haygood. New York:
Rizzoli, .  pp. .. Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title,
organized by and presented at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio,  October –
January .
A A O: T L  W  R B. By Mary Schmidt-Campbell.
New York: Oxford University Press, .  pp. Illustrated. ..
 
racial empowerment by showcasing young graphic and ne arts talent. Partly because
s New York had already become the principal advertising, book publishing, and
music recording hub of the culturally dominant Northeast Corridor, this New Negro
“renaissance” came to be thought of as Harlem’s very own.
Harlem was indeed its epicenter, but this seismic “New Negro” movement ssured
along dierent fault lines at the same time: Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area
in the Far West; Chicago and Kansas City in the Midwest; Atlanta and Washington,
D.C., below the Mason-Dixon Line; Boston and New York in the Northeast Corridor;
Berlin and Paris in Europe. Schmidt-Campbell writes that New York City, a leading cen-
ter of the struggle for civil rights, a hotbed of “free radical” activity, remained relatively
unscathed by the race riots occurring in more than two dozen American cities during
the Red Summer of , “turning Harlem into a cultural demilitarized zone. It became
a place where, if only briey, cultural boundaries could be crossed, if not eliminated, at
a time when cultural divides elsewhere were hardening.
A native of Columbus, guest curator Wil Haygood traces these cross-cultural
exchanges in the companion text to the centenary exhibit. For example, graphics and
portraiture specialist Winold Reiss and Dadaist George Grosz, artists from Germany’s
Weimar Republic, each signicantly inuenced African American art of the period,
just as émigrés from Hitlers Europe would later contribute to shaping the American
artistic landscape in the s and beyond. A note on the text’s organization and inter-
disciplinary focus is in order. As journalist and biographer of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
and others, Haygood limits himself to the economic, intellectual, and social history of
the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural and political movement. His ten chapters orient
viewers toward what certain artworks “mean.” He leaves to brief catalog essays by a
half-dozen scholar-curators, interspersed between and within those chapters, the task
of helping viewers understand how certain objects “work,” why they succeed as art,
how the components of individual works interact with each other, which works by one
artist relate to works by other artists and so on.
Hence, Haygood’s chapter “Becoming Harlem” features an essay by Drew Sawyer
on the Ralph Deluca Collection of African American vernacular photography. In a
later chapter, “e Sad-Sweet Laughter of Vaudeville,” Sawyer balances these remarks
with a brief a tribute to documentary and ne-art portrait photographer James Van
Der Zee. Van Der Zee’s elaborate studio props and techniques of superimposition
(single prints sometimes made from double negatives), together with subjects ranging
from athletes, drag-ball queens, social club members in evening dress, to soldiers in
uniform, provide what Schmidt-Campbell calls “a detailed visual record of the Harlem
of the s, s, and s, its ceremonies, rituals, street life, night life, architecture.
Right about the time Malcolm X was born, Van Der Zee shot an image of Marcus
   
Garvey in full-regalia. e photographic juxtaposition of that image with a Marion,
Indiana, lynch mob ( August ) is typical of the text’s savvy.
In the chapter titled “In Feverish Motion,” Carole Gensha informs us that it was
Winold Reiss “who encouraged Aaron Douglas to cultivate African design elements in
his work.” e February  magazine cover the Urban League commissioned Reiss
to design for Opportunity, with its serrated borders of lights over blacks, its harmoniz-
ing pastels, its juxtaposition of serif over sans serif fonts, all suggest what Gensha
describes as “traditional masks from West and Central Africa.” Aaron Douglas’s cover
for the February  issue, with its “geometric angles and gures that interact with
jagged asymmetrical elements suggesting the rhythm and syncopation of jazz, the at
space and frieze-like format of ancient Egyptian art, and the geometric reductions of
cubism and art deco,” clearly shows the inuence of Reiss.
In “e Fearless Scholar,” Haygood discusses the role Du Bois assumed when
Frederick Douglass died, as what David Levering Lewis called “senior intellectual
militant of his people.” Anastasia Kinigopoulo highlights the relatively little-known
role Du Bois played as patron of the ne arts. During his leadership of e Crisis, he
provided “a platform,” she says, “for many rising authors and artists.” Du Bois featured
Laura Wheeler’s Egypt and Spring on the April  cover, and commissioned artwork
by Douglas for various issues. “In ,” writes Kinigopoulo, “Douglas briey took
over as artistic director. Under Douglas, e Crisis expanded its format, modernized
the typography, and published lavish full-page frontispieces in addition to the cover
illustrations.” Even aer Du Bois’s retirement, e Crisis would feature in its pages the
work of young political cartoonist Romare Bearden.
In “e Two Reverend Powells,” Haygood sheds light on the cultural, political
and social impact of religion in Harlem, which had as many as  black churches
in . Vast congregations like Abyssinian Baptist, the platform from which pastor
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. catapulted into Congress, were bastions of black political
activism, their pastors serving as presidents of NAACP branches, collecting thousands
of petition signatures in protest of racial discrimination. Such churches served as
headquarters and conference centers for community outreach initiatives, establish-
ing night schools for the illiterate, and organizing voter registration drives for the
disenfranchised. Nanette V. Maciejunes illustrates this chapter with a catalog essay
on Archibald Motley, painter of Mending Socks (), both an iconic portrait of the
artist’s paternal grandmother and the very picture of elderly congregant piety.
Like its companion book, the show took its title from Langston Hughes’ poem
“I, Too, Sing America.” e poet spent some formative years in Cleveland, where he
graduated high school. Haygood devotes an entire chapter, “e Poet Who Became
a Star,” to Hughes. In “An Ode to Zora Neale,” Haygood sketches Hurston, a writer
with what Schmidt-Campbell calls “outsized dreams.” Hurston arrived in New York,
 
in the middle of winter, with no friends, one change of clean underwear and . in
her pocket. is chapter devotes catalog essays to painter Jacob Lawrence and also to
his mentor, sculptor Augusta Savage.
Finally, in “Why e Harlem Renaissance Endures” Haygood reminds of us
that, long aer composers like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud,
and Maurice Ravel ceased frequenting Harlem cabarets, dives, and speakeasies, where
they’d jotted down jazz and blues rhythms and chords on napkins, the Harlem Renais-
sance was hardly “a movement conned to either upper Manhattan or the interwar
period,” but was rather a “historical moment of national and international signicance
that continues to have reverberations far beyond its typically noted end date in the
mid-s.
ree years in the making, the exhibit featured a great quantity of high-quality
visual art. I, Too, Sing America included books, music, lms, and posters from the
period, illustrating the varied ways in which performing artists as well as videogra-
phers continue ghting representational injustice. Yet, the function of an art review is
not just to report on displayed objects’ shapes, colors, sizes, materials, and textures but
to comment on how those objects or missing objects align or misalign with curatorial
goals and processes, how those objects are “framed.” e exhibit itself successfully
illustrated themes such as the Great Migration of African Americans to urban centers
like Columbus c. –, and how subsequent African American art still mirrors
the “dialectic,” as Schmidt-Campbell calls it, “between life in the industrialized North
and the rural South.” e collaborative and interdisciplinary companion volume is as
thoughtful, comprehensive and scrupulously documented as Rizzoli’s book design is
handsome.
In keeping with the canon of African-American visual art, most names you’d
expect to nd in the index of such a book do in fact appear. Generalists will be grateful
to discover graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett, painter Beauford Delaney, sculptor Meta
Vaux Warrick Fuller, painters Malvin Gray Johnson and William Henry Johnson, as
well as white documentary portrait photographer Carl Van Vechten, who was by his
own admission “violently interested in Negroes.” Specialists, however, might question
the omission from a show that otherwise succeeded, within the limits of institutional
resources and/or permissions, in illuminating both the development of the Harlem
Renaissance as an artists’ collective but also the transnational evolution of individual
artists, of mural painter Hale Woodru.
Schmidt-Campbell, one such specialist, argues that the “inuence of Woodru ’s
murals has been overlooked in art history.” Woodru ’s absence from the show, what-
ever the curatorial rationale, was as conspicuous as his accomplishments are undeni-
able. In , muralist Diego Rivera granted Woodru the historic opportunity to
assist and study with him in Mexico. e remaining two-thirds of “Los Tres Grandes,
   
José Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, likewise inuenced the thousands of hos-
pital, library, post oce, and school walls Woodru and his African American peers
decorated in the s and s, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vast infra-
structure project, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Later, Woodru either
established or was long-tenured in the art departments of historically black colleges
like Atlanta University and predominantly white institutions like New York University,
whose permanent collections he helped develop, thus creating what Schmidt-Camp-
bell calls “an environment in which young painters, sculptors, and printmakers could
thrive.” Reception of his Day-Glo Amistad Murals (–) has been mixed. One
could even argue, as Australian art critic Robert Hughes said of Rivera himself, that
Woodru was “a gied painter deformed by the needs of propaganda. Sometimes his
work was too openly didactic and coarse-grained, too attached to populist stereotypes.
Nevertheless, Schmidt-Campbell asserts that Hale Woodru ’s legacy “was as conse-
quential as that of any artist who lived and worked in New York.” Despite changing
tastes, a denitive retrospective of early twentieth century African American artists
without Woodru would seem as unrepresentative as a survey of Harlem Renaissance
writers without Countée Cullen.
e decade – is routinely cited as the beginning and the end of the Harlem
Renaissance. Some say it began as early as , when black soldiers rst saw action in
France as the U.S. entered World War I. Some say that, whenever it began, by  it
was over. Du Bois returned to Atlanta University in . Aaron Douglas, whod arrived
from Kansas City nearly ten years earlier, le for Nashville. ere he later founded
the art department at Fisk University and taught until his retirement the year before
Hughes died. From the end of Prohibition, the Harlem riots of , and the termina-
tion of the WPA program in , Harlem went from ghetto to slum. Many whites
began avoiding the place altogether. ere followed a general exodus from Harlem
among rst-wave visual artists in the mid-s, mirroring that of African American
writers in the late Twenties. In a pattern of reverse migration, talent ed the City of
Refuge, returning south to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Some packed
up and headed o to California or France. (“Our Father,” joked Langston, “who art in
Heaven, Hollywood be thy name.”)
e end of one era marked the beginning of a new wave of black visual arts. , the
year James Baldwin began studying French and creative writing with Countée Cullen
in middle school, marks what Mary Schmidt-Campbell calls the “generational divide.
e relatively new Museum of Modern Art mounted an inuential exhibit of West
African sculpture that year. Schmidt-Campbell’s An American Odyssey: e Life and
Work of Romare Bearden situates Bearden within the context of both his predecessors
and contemporaries. “Bearden,” says Schmidt-Campbell, “was foreshadowing a gen-
 
eration of artists that succeeded those of the Harlem Renaissance.” Harlem without
Romare Bearden is imaginable, but the artist of the monumental e Block () is
unimaginable without Harlem.
Unlike Haygood, Schmidt-Campbell is a trained art scholar. Current president of
Spelman College and former executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, she
has studied Bearden since graduate school. Her text contains  pages of appendix,
acknowledgments, endnotes, bibliography, and index.
e introduction and epilogue bookend a volume that divides into three parts,
each containing three chapters. Part I, “Terms of the Debate,” guides the reader to
Beardens birth in Charlotte, North Carolina (), fertile source of many themes
recurrent in Bearden’s work. Ubiquitous trains symbolize the connection between that
growing city, the cotton elds of the Deep South and the markets of the North. Dur-
ing the Great Migration, trains transported loads of African Americans from Georgia
and Mississippi directly to the blast furnaces and assembly lines of Pittsburgh, where
Bearden graduated high school.
Beardens father played church organ on Sundays. Other days, he drank and
played piano. Jazz and blues were a primal source of inspiration for the rst wave of
Harlem Renaissance artists. Likewise, “chords of color”—sometimes harmonizing,
sometimes dissonant—are dominant in Bearden’s work. “What jazz accomplished in
music,” says Schmidt-Campbell, “was an example of what he desired for painting.
Readers may recognize Bearden’s work from the covers of vinyl albums and compact
disc recordings of Billie Holiday, Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach.
e chapter titled “Harlem: e Promised Land” describes “the kind of public
visual spectacle” that “captivated Bearden as a child and contributed to the densely rich
culture that was the foundation of his work.” Harlem was Mecca for many migrants
from North Carolina, and the Bearden family arrived as World War I began. During
the s, an era of ten-cent Saturday movies, vaudeville sketches, and Sunday parades,
the Harlem Renaissance was literally alive to Bearden.
Beardens mother, Bessye, appears in several books about the Harlem Renais-
sance. She was a newspaper columnist and advocate for women’s voting rights. In
Beardens, as in the childhoods of many African-Americans, women not only “played
a prominent role,” Schmidt-Campbell writes, “women reigned.” Physical proximity was
one of the things that made the Harlem Renaissance possible in the rst place. Every-
body knew everybody. In its heyday, Harlem was a virtual city within the city, crowd-
ing more black actors, composers, journalists, playwrights, poets, and singers into a
six-square-mile radius than all other U.S. cities combined. Socially well-connected
Bessye Bearden invited famous actors to her home, played a bit part in lmmaker
Oscar Micheaux’s Gunsaulus Mystery, and entertained dignitaries like Du Bois. “You
had to walk fast,” says Schmidt-Campbell, “to keep up with Bessye Bearden.
   
Bearden came of age as this glamorous period ended. As the Depression deep-
ened, the national unemployment rate peaked at  percent. In Harlem, it was more
like  percent. In  and , when Bearden graduated from New York Univer-
sity, he came under the lasting inuence of the German artist George Grosz. He also
contributed political cartoons to publications like the one his mother wrote for, the
Baltimore Afro-American as well as Opportunity.
e Harlem Renaissance had ceased to be an extant movement, and creative
energies were shiing from the hub to satellites like Washington, D.C. But its scattered
remnants remained a close community. Between semesters, Aaron Douglas continued
to visit and paint New York. At studios like  W. st Street, better known as “,
informal groups of black and white artists gathered, collaborating, exchanging ideas,
and otherwise contributing to what Schmidt-Campbell calls the “Open University”
atmosphere of Depression-era Harlem. Augusta Savage administered an eight-thou-
sand-square-foot art school, the Harlem Community Art Center, where emerging
artists Jacob (“Jake”) Lawrence and “Romie” Bearden were able to mix with established
organizers like “Doug,” a decade or two their senior. Bearden traveled to Atlanta to
meet Hale Woodru. Beardens earliest paintings, Schmidt-Campbell argues, were as
inuenced by Douglas and Woodru as they were by the Mexican muralists.
In I, Too, Sing America, Bearden is represented by an early work in what Schmidt-
Campbell calls “a naturalistic, social realist style,Untitled (Harvesting Tobacco) (c.
), from the period that marks what oral historian Myron Schwartzman calls “the
rst owering of Bearden’s art.” A matron painted in gouache on brown paper recalls
the women of Bearden’s Southern childhood, “sturdy gures calm, the faces stoic and
mask-like, bodies stiy articulated and still, as if they were carved from wood. Painted
in earth tones and with muted reds and blues,” the tones are almost muddy: brownish-
red ochres and greens.
Before World War II, Beardens “images had been,” Schmidt-Campbell says,
about “social justice issues. . . . Aer the war, aer the death of his mother [] he
rethought completely his views about the nature of art and his role as an artist.
In Part II, “e Negro Artist’s Dilemma, Schmidt-Campbell shows how Bearden
embraced but ultimately refused to limit himself to the African roots of his heritage. He
was a visual omnivore, “rst and foremost a student of painting.” Schmidt-Campbell
shows Bearden, in his own work, constantly testing himself, “trying on then discard-
ing one approach to painting aer another,” from social realism to abstraction in the
s, from mid-Fiies cubism to the “the rip and tear” of collages like Watching the
Good Trains Go By (). “Bearden was nding his way home by rediscovering black
subject matter,” she writes, “but home for him as global as it was local; as black as it
was white; North American, Middle Eastern, European, Asian, and African. Home
was a battleeld and a fortress, a past and a future, and a way of seeing and knowing.
 
Another thing Bearden and contemporaries like Lawrence had in common with
rst-wave Harlem Renaissance artists is what Schmidt-Campbell calls their “sustained
interest in yoking together the visual and the written.” Bearden wrote prolically, from
his essay “e Negro Artist and Modern Art” in Opportunity, published at age twenty-
three, to his posthumous A History of African-American Artists: 1792 to the Present
(). According to Schmidt-Campbell, as Bearden wrote, he “rethought completely
his views about the nature of art and his role as an artist.” Essayist Albert Murray sug-
gested many of the evocative titles Romare Bearden works bear. In return, Bearden
designed the book cover for Murray’s novel Train Whistle Guitar () as well as Dizzy
Gillespies autobiography To Be or Not To Bop (). In , the Limited Editions Club
published Derek Walcott’s Poems of the Caribbean, illustrated by Bearden watercolors
and a lithograph. Likewise, Aaron Douglas designed the dust jackets for Arna Bon-
temps’s God Sends Sunday, as well as several books by Countée Cullen, Claude McKay,
and others, while Lawrence illustrated one of Hughess books.
Chapter , “A Voyage of Discovery: –” describes the nearly six months
Bearden spent in Paris, another place Harlem Renaissance visual artists had in com-
mon with successive generations. Augusta Savage spent most of – in Paris, in a
Latin Quarter studio was frequented by Palmer Hayden and Hale Woodru. In Paris,
Bearden met Braque, Brancusi, Matisse, and Picasso, on whom African sculpture had
had the kind of impact it later had on Reiss. Bearden did everything but paint. He
was stuck. However, his artistic productivity would return. Another work from the
Columbus Museum’s permanent collection, Watching the Good Trains Go By (),
represents Bearden’s breakthrough phase as collagist.
Part III, “e Prevalence of Ritual,” brings us to Bearden’s late, great visual
improvisations in French Caribbean blue, the Odysseus Series (). ese “stylized
black silhouettes” set against dramatic eects of intensely saturated, cannily alternated
lights and darks—Home to Ithaca, for example—are based on Homer. ey arm
the black experience yet beautifully transcend the limitations of identity politics, “as
if,” said Schwartzman, “Homer had been a Mediterranean-African bard” and the set-
ting were North African rather than Greek. “Strict and classical” they combine what
Bearden termed “spatial elegance” with masses of “sonorous color” in the manner of
Matis s e’s Jazz.
Fascinated all his life with manual laborers of the cotton eld and steel mills,
Bearden showed up every day in his studio before ten , a papier-mâché construction
worker, and painted a solid ve or six hours, in blue overalls, for the last twenty years
of his life until four days before his death. When the iconic artist, Schmidt-Campbell
writes, “walked out of his studio for the last time, he closed the door and le with the
satisfaction that his voyage of discovery had come to an end. He had nally disem-
barked.
   
Beardens denition of a great artist was one who can change our ways of see-
ing. e four-color plates and nearly one hundred black-and-white images from An
American Odyssey cover every phase of Beardens development. Between them, I, Too,
Sing America and An American Odyssey do for readers’ understanding of African
American visual art between  and  what David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem
Was in Vogue () does for our understanding of Harlem Renaissance literary art.
Together, they may change the way we see both Romare Bearden and his predeces-
sors who transformed American culture through their contributions to the Harlem
Renaissance.
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