The Harlem Renaissance Comes to The Wolfsonian

It seems only fitting that in the middle of Black History Month, twenty-seven students enrolled in my America and Movies: The Black Image in Hollywood and History course at Florida International University arrived at The Wolfsonian–FIU to look at some artwork in the galleries; to review a display of rare portfolios and books from the Harlem Renaissance; and to view the film The Emperor Jones (1933) in our auditorium.

While exploring the galleries, the undergraduate students stopped to examine several art objects on display, including Harlem, an oil painting by Elanor Colburn (1866–1939) depicting a cultured, middle-class, fashionably dressed African-American woman holding her child.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After finishing our brief tour of the museum galleries, the students came down to the library to see and discuss a large number of materials documenting the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain LeRoy Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925).

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In an era characterized by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and egregious stereotypes, this book sought to extoll contributions to American culture by black intellectuals, poets, literary critics, musicians, performers, and artists, even as Locke toned down and edited out the more radical writings of some Harlem political figures. The book includes “primitivist” designs by African-American illustrator Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), “modernist” illustrations by Mexican ethnologist and artist Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957), and decorative, “realistic,” and culturally sensitive portraits of prominent Harlem Renaissance figures by the German-American artist Winold Reiss.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

We recently received a gift from Daniel Morris of Historical Design of a large number of books with dust jacket covers and illustrations by Aaron Douglas, including Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter, For Freedom by Arthur Huff Fauset, Banjo by Claude McKay, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson, and several issues of the Crisis, the organ of the N.A.A.C.P.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Historical Design

Having arrived in the United States a few years before the outbreak of the Great War, Winold Reiss experienced firsthand the backlash against “hyphenated” Americans and became sensitized to the plight and prejudice experienced by other minorities. Reiss’ frontispiece illustration, “The Brown Madonna,” foreshadows the subject matter of Colburn’s Harlem painting, while other portraits celebrate anonymous Harlem heroines.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Thanks to Daniel Morris’ gift, we now have more Covarrubias images documenting the Harlem Renaissance, including book jacket covers and interior illustrations decorating W. C. Handy’s Blues: An Anthology, Taylor Gordon’s Born to Be, Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men, René Maran’s Batouala, and his own published collection of Negro Drawings.

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The recent gift by Daniel Morris also included anthologies of poetry by Countee Cullen with dust jacket designs and illustrations by Charles Cullen.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Historical Design

The poet was also pictured by Reiss in Locke’s The New Negro.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As the class was examining images of African-American performers of the Jazz Age, we also looked at some materials about Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, whose careers blossomed more in Europe than their native land. I have described in my last post Paul Colin’s color pochoir illustrated, Le Tumulte Noir, but it is worth including a few more plates from that portfolio.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Historical Design

Josphine Baker won international fame as a singer, dancer, and movie star in post-war France, which many African-American soldiers found to offer a far more racially tolerant atmosphere than the United States. Even as Baker stepped into French cabaret life and appeared as a headliner performing half-nude Charleston dance routines at the famous Folies Bergère, she also began starring in French films such as Princess Tam Tam (1935) that played upon colonial obsessions with African “primitivism” and “naturalism” while simultaneously showcasing French cosmopolitanism and “modernism.”

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Paul Robeson’s career as a dramatic actor and singer began in the United States, and the same year that his portrait appeared in Locke’s New Negro, he also appeared in black film director’s Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul. In the 1930s he spent much time performing and touring in England and Europe, and also became a star of the silver screen, with his lead in such films as The Emperor Jones.

The American artist, Mabel Dwight (1875–1955), also celebrated America’s imposing baritone.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As internationally recognized celebrities, performers like Baker and Robeson continued to fashion positive images of African Americans in the 1930s, even as the Harlem Renaissance declined in the wake of the Great Depression. Even under such trying economic circumstances when approximately half of all black breadwinners were unemployed and joining the ever-lengthening breadlines, the philanthropic Harmon Foundation was determined to keep African-American art alive. The Harmon Foundation awarded medals, awards, and scholarships; organized art classes; and curated galleries and traveling exhibitions focusing on black life and encouraging the recognition of African-American artists.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

 

~ by "The Chief" on February 22, 2019.

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