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Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist

January 18 - April 13, 2008


A native of Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1922. In 1925, he moved to Harlem to join the cultural flourishing that has been called the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. The young artists, writers, dancers and musicians he met there believed creative expression could help define a unique racial identity and simultaneously bridge the divide between black and white communities. (right: Aaron Douglas, United States (1899-1979), Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction, 1934, oil on canvas, 57 3/4 x 138 1/4 inches (146.7 x 351.2 cm). Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Almost immediately after his arrival, Douglas became involved in Harlem's thriving literary scene and was asked to contribute to various projects, including Alain Locke's influential anthology The New Negro. He also created bold illustrations and cover designs for both Opportunity and Crisis, civil rights magazines published by the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P., respectively. Douglas collaborated with notable Harlem Renaissance writers including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay, to create book jacket designs as well. In 1926, with the Harlem Renaissance movement in full swing, Douglas, along with Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston, founded Fire!! A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists. 

The highly regarded illustrator and painter was asked by Fisk University to create a series of murals to adorn the new Cravath Memorial Library (now Cravath Hall) in 1929. Five years later, Douglas was commissioned by the Works Project Administration (WPA) to paint murals for the 135th Street branch of New York's Public Library. Entitled Aspects of Negro Life, the murals drew heavily on influences of African sculpture, music and dance. 

In 1937, Douglas returned to Fisk to teach art where he remained until his retirement in 1966. He died in Nashville in 1979.

During his long and illustrious career, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and utopian vision. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined cubist rhythms and Art-Deco dynamism with traditional African and African American imagery to develop a new visual vocabulary. Douglas' imaginative and forceful ideas, and his distinctive artistic form, combined to produce the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and made a lasting impact on the history of art and the cultural heritage of the nation.

The exhibition, on view in the Frist Center's Upper-Level Galleries, begins with two galleries dedicated to the illustrations and cover designs that Douglas created for various literary publications. Highlights include the graphically incisive cover for Fire!! A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists and the eight paintings he made to accompany James Weldon Johnson'sGod's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). The popularity of magazines and books and the ease of their dissemination made Douglas' designs visible to a broad audience, both black and white. These creative partnerships between author and artist also underscore the multi-genre nature of the Harlem Renaissance.

A reading area, complete with samples of Harlem Renaissance music and publications and other reference books, is offered for visitors to learn more about this vibrant time period.

The next two galleries focus on Douglas' large-scale murals, widely considered to be among his most important work, in which he portrayed subjects from African American history and contemporary life.In addition to the celebrated murals at Fisk University,Douglas was commissioned to create murals for such institutions as Club Ebony in Harlem (1927); the Sherman Hotel in Chicago (1930); the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (1934) and the Texas Centennial Exposition (1936). All of Douglas' existing major mural projects are represented in this exhibition. Included are "portable" murals, studies for various projects and an artist-made video representing the permanently affixed Fisk and Harlem YMCA murals (1933).

The multiple styles explored by Douglas throughout his career are presented in the next segment of the exhibition. The various paintings and works on paper allow the visitor to compare and contrast the public style for which he is best known-flat, silhouetted figures, a limited color palette and radiating bands of light -- with his more naturalistically rendered, private images of close friends and everyday life.The final section explores Douglas' legacy and influence, with several works from contemporaries and students, including Romare Bearden,Bruce Nugent and Gregory Ridley.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

Short clip on "Art Treasures of Nebraska - Aaron Douglas" from NETnebraska

TFAO also suggests this DVD or VHS video:

Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist. To capture Aaron Douglas's on-site murals painted in the 1930s, the Spencer Museum of Art has commissioned a video as part of the Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist exhibition. The high-definition video, created for the 2007 exhibit by noted filmmaker, producer, and director Madison Davis Lacy, documents Douglas's murals at Fisk University in Nashville and the Harlem YMCA in New York. A blend of contemporary images of the murals and archival footage interspersed with statements by leading scholars of African American art and culture, the video adds a new dimension to the record of Douglas's murals. Mr. Lacy's film honors include Emmy Awards for the documentaries Free to Dance (PBS), Beyond Tara - The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel (AMC), The Time Has Come (as part of Eyes on the Prize: America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985) (PBS), and Richard Wright - Black Boy (PBS, BBC). He has also received a Peabody Award for the film Back to the Movement. Mr. Lacy served as executive producer for the feature-length documentary Paris is Burning and has many other film projects to his credit.

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