Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist

 www.aarondouglas.ku.edu is a website featuring the brochure on the retrospective exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.   This exhibition has now travelled to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture located at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue just across the street from Harlem Hospital.

Now that the Master's Seminar has seen the exhibition and I have too, I am glad we made the attempt although it was entirely last minute.  I had no idea that this exhibition was going on until my sister forwarded this brochure and the one for children to me.  It occurred to me immediately that this might be a very important exhibition, because Douglas was overdue for attention and also as a visual artist he would fit right into our segment on Harlem Renaissance Literature, in which we are reading Jean Toomer's experimental novel CANE (1923) and Zora Neale Hurston's collection of African American folklore, MULES AND MEN (1935).

The exhibition space at the Schomburg Library is newly built and forms an atrium over the main public research room, which is one floor down, where murals by Douglas have always been on display.  Large photocopies were made of Douglas's series of four murals ASPECTS OF NEGRO LIFE: 1) Negroes in an African Setting,  2) FROM SLAVERY THROUGH RECONSTRUCTION, 3) IDYLL OF THE DEEP SOUTH, 4) SONG OF THE TOWERS (1934), in order to allow the murals to travel with this exhibition which originates from the University of Kansas.  Douglas was born in Kansas. 

At the Schomburg, the actual paintings were hung inside the atrium, and on the other side of the wall was the color photocopy of the same painting.  If you compare them-- although you have to look back and forth since you can't see both at the same time--you will notice that the colors of the actual paintings are both darker and richer.  I had begun to notice years ago that these paintings, which I have been looking at off and on all my life when going to the Schomburg, are absolutely bewitchingly beautiful.  I was perhaps guilty of taking them for granted as a kid since as a resident of Harlem they had always been there.  Also, they had gotten very dirty through neglect and inattention.  Since then they have been cleaned up until they sparkle.  For all I know, restoration may have lightened them slightly. 

The Schomburg has a fabulous collection of original art by African American artists and it has always been freely displayed throughout the building.  It is unusual, especially in these days, to see so much really important art on the walls of a public building, especially a building in Harlem.   But the exhibition was not without safeguards.  It lacks that free and open atmosphere of the major museums downtown.  It seems to me also that there were an unusual number of guards, and each time I have been to see exhibitions in this new space, I have felt as though I am being gently encouraged by the guards not to enter that room.  I don't know whether it is because it is less trouble for them if nobody goes in there or whether it is because no one has taken the time to explain to them what this new feature of the Schomburg means and how they should conduct themselves in order to assure its success.  

A lot of people don't seem to know much about visual art these days, probably because they were never introduced to it as children-- and you really need to establish a comfort level with the arts, maybe especially visual art, as a child, no later than five or six because, as my mother likes to say, children are such wonderful artists.  But they have to have a chance to see art and to make art.  If not, I am not quite sure what happens to this innate ability.  

But art education is one of the things that has been cut from the offerings of public schools and perhaps it is viewed by many educators as an unnecessary extra.  This is not the case however with the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a chartered elementary school which is just up the street and around the corner from the Schomburg.  It is located where the Theresa Hotel use to be, and the children there benefit from having a principal who is both a fine person and a lover of visual art.  The teachers there are engaged in providing an extensive art curriculum for the children, and I would be willing to bet that they have already been enjoying the Douglas exhibition.   

For the most part public buildings have permanent installations or the art is placed high enough to make it impossible to touch it or remove it.  For instance, there are several such pieces at City College, around the entrance to the student cafeteria whereas there is a wonderful Houston Conwill work which is displayed on the wall at the entrance of the faculty cafeteria where students and the public are not encouraged to go.  

Most of the art one can see in Harlem is in the form of public murals and/or commissions, such as the fantastic mosaics featured on the platforms of every subway station in Harlem created by a range of African American artists.   

In addition to the exhibition and the research facilities at the Schomburg, another lovely feature is the gift shop, which has one of the most extensive collections of books on African American topics in the tri-state area I suspect.  You may not have noticed it before but Harlem is particularly short on bookstores.  There's Hue-man books on 125th Street and there's your school bookstore at CCNY.  There is also a meagre collection of books at the Studio Museum Gift Shop where the space is increasingly devoted to knicks knacks and jewelry of various kinds. There are a lot of outdoor book tables in Harlem, although the literary quality of what they offer has dropped sharply in recent years. Aside from these resources, there isn't much else.  Of course, libraries help, especially since books are getting more and more expensive.  

I think perhaps that Amazon may have completely thrown off the entire book market, which is in a state of confusion (I hope not collapse). 

The exhibition was stunning and I was surprised how well it segued into the material of the course because Aaron Douglas was so much the artist of the Harlem Renaissance, illustrating the works of Alain Locke, Langston Hughes and lots of others.  He also did quite a number of public murals at Fisk University where he taught for many years and in other places where he was asked.  

I have included on this page some samples of his work.

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