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Rethinking a Renaissance

LACMA brings in a new show that takes the creative outburst in 1920s and '30s Harlem--including film, music, literature and visual art--and places it in a global and multiethnic context.

July 26, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

'Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance," an exhibition opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, bills itself as a post-modern inquiry into the outpouring of creative energy that ignited America's black community in uptown Manhattan during the 1920s.

What post-modern means, in this case, is that the show attempts to transform the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s from a regional movement into an international one, by placing it in a panoramic setting.

Toward that end, "Rhapsodies in Black" deals with film, music and literature, as well as visual art. And, in addition to the celebrated painters associated with the Harlem Renaissance--Jacob Lawrence, Archibald J. Motley Jr, Aaron Douglas--the show includes work by Edward Burra, a white Englishman who visited Harlem in the '30s, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, photographers Walker Evans and Doris Ulmann, Man Ray, and Winold Reiss, a white Austrian whose drawings reflect his interest in classifying "racial types."

"In treating the Harlem Renaissance as an international movement that included different races, the show becomes much more than just a package of black art for black people, and that appealed to us," says Howard Fox, LACMA's contemporary art curator who helped oversee the installation of the show.

The show originated at the Hayward Gallery in London, and was jointly curated by Richard J. Powell, an art history professor at Duke University who has written several books on black culture, and David Bailey, a British artist and writer who was a founding member of Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers.

"The seed for this show was planted in 1993 when I saw an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's painting cycle, 'The Migration Series,' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York," says Bailey of Lawrence's landmark work, half of which is owned by MOMA, and half by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

"I thought about bringing it to England for a show, but I felt Lawrence's work should be seen within the context of how it was created," continues Bailey, speaking by phone from his home in London. "Initially I felt it would be enough to also show the work of Lawrence's two mentors, Augusta Savage and Aaron Douglas, but then I started thinking about work by his contemporaries. One thing led to another, and I concluded that you can't understand this work without also experiencing certain films, pieces of music and writings of the period.

"I finally realized I wasn't interested in doing a black show, rather, I wanted to make connections that haven't previously been made linking Modernism, Primitivism and African culture--and that's why artists like Man Ray and Sir Jacob Epstein are included. We're trying to encourage a conversation that's never taken place before."

A British scholar presenting the Harlem Renaissance as an international movement prompts the obvious question: What was going on in England's black community during the '20s?

"In terms of literature, political activism and the performing arts, there was lots going on, but there were very few black British visual artists then," says Bailey. "Generally speaking, the racial politics of our two countries are completely different."

Centered in a 15-block area north of Central Park, between 130th and 145th streets, the Harlem Renaissance has been described as more a state of mind than an art movement, and precisely when it began and ended is a subject of considerable debate.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog) makes the case that the Harlem Renaissance was preceded by an earlier black renaissance that occurred in America in 1900, when Booker T. Washington began expounding his vision of "a new Negro for a new century."

Poet and writer Langston Hughes, on the other hand, marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance with the 1921 opening of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's all-black revue, "Shuffle Along," and said it ended with the stock market crash of 1929. "White people had much less money to spend on themselves, and almost none to spend on Negroes," Hughes wrote at the time.

Bailey dismisses 1929 as marking the end of the Renaissance, on the grounds that "it's a definition based on patronage. When the stock market crashed, white attention did shift elsewhere, however the visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance continued to make work throughout the '30s. The renaissance didn't end--it just fanned out and became less insular."

Powell says the curtain came down in 1939, when Jacob Lawrence unveiled his painting cycle, "Toussaint L'Ouverture Series", a 41-panel homage to the slave who launched the 1797 revolution in Haiti that led to the establishment of the first black republic in the west. (Now 81, Lawrence is the only artist in the show who is still living).

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