Tuesday, October 16, 2012
In the decade before the Great Depression, the New York City neighborhood of Harlem's intense creativity in the visual arts, literature, music, & dance inspired African Americans to be proud of the heritage of their race. Intent of capturing this powerful aspect of the Jazz Age was Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), a painter, muralist, & illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas's use of African design & subject matter in his work brought him to the attention of W.E.B. Du Bois & Alain Locke, who were pressing for young African American artists to express their African folk culture in their art. His work was published regularly in The Crisis, as well as in Opportunity & Vanity Fair. His most famous illustrations were for James Weldon Johnson's 1927 book of poetic sermons, God's Trombones. Alain Locke called Douglas a "pioneering Africanist" and used his illustrations in his 1925 anthology, The New Negro.
Kansas-born Douglas created numerous large-scale murals portraying subjects from African American history & contemporary life in epic allegories. Douglas was among the first African Americans to consciously incorporate African imagery, culture, & history into his art. Although he had never visited Africa, the painter was able to create this image from his imagination combining the influence of ancient Egyptian sculpture with the modern Art Deco style. In 1934, he was commissioned, under the sponsorship of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), to paint a series of murals for The New York Public Library's 135th Street branch, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Among his best-known works, the four panels of Aspects of Negro Life are characteristic of Douglas's style, with graphically incisive motifs plus the dynamic incorporation of such influences as African sculpture, jazz music, dance, & abstract geometric forms.
Douglas joined the faculty of Fisk University in 1937 and stayed there until his retirement in 1966. A true pioneer, his artistic insight has had a lasting influence on American art history & is a testament to the themes of African heritage & racial pride.
During the decade of the Great Depression, the book The Negro in Art was being compiled by Howard University professor Alain Locke & introduced the most extensive retrospective of African American art published to that date. The selections appearing in the 1940 book span almost 300 years including the work of 100 black artists from Europe & the United States including Joshua Johnston, Edward Bannister, Henry O. Tanner, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Palmer Hayden, Allan Crite, James A. Porter, James Lesesne Wells, & Douglas among others.