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African-American modernists finally have their place at the Met
les-modernistes-africains-americains-ont-enfin-leur-place-au-met - ARTACTIF
June 2024 | Reading time: 20 Min | 0 Comment(s)

About the exhibition “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” which is on until July 28 at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York.

I completely fall for some, less so for others, but whatever the case, the colorful and expressive works of art brought together in the New York exhibition at the Met are fascinating, as much for their aesthetics as for their political force: it was time to talk again about an episode too long neglected in the history of art, namely the Harlem Renaissance, the first modern art movement initiated by African-American artists which propelled this district of New York ranks as the world capital of black culture.

Imagine that in 1969, the Met presented an event entitled “Harlem on my Mind – Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968”. An exhibition which was supposed to respond to the civil rights movement, ignited by the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. Well, no work of art from the African-American art scene had been exhibited there! Paintings, drawings, sculptures... there would have been plenty to choose from! There was no shortage of works of art for sale! But no, the hanging was content to amass newspaper clippings, recordings of street noises and photographs of James Van Der Zee or Gordon Parks, taken in Harlem. I’ll let you imagine the outcry… “Harlem on Whose Mind?” » (Harlem in whose head?) could we read on the demonstration signs.

So let justice finally be done. And well done!

When I find myself faced with Woman in Blue by William Henry Johnson, or Blues, by Archibald J. Motley Jr... I don't even understand why I had never seen these paintings before, which are of such power and incredible light! I immediately think of one of my favorite painters, Kees van Dongen, who captivates me so much with his portraits of women in hats. And then, to my amazement, I discovered that the Dutch painter, naturalized French in 1929, was there, present on the walls of this fabulous exhibition, like Henri Matisse or Edvard Munch, because they were all in dialogue with the artists, writers and musicians of the Renaissance. from Harlem. Kees Van Dongen painted “White Feathers” in 1911, having a black model pose according to the codes of society portraiture, in Paris, in the years 1910-1920: something obviously extremely rare at the time! He also readily presented himself as a “white Negro”, thus emphasizing the primitive character of his work which aimed for the expressiveness of color.

Difficult to express these days, obviously. But in the 1920s, you should know that the urban, cultured and liberated black citizen was also called “New Negro”, or “New Negro”, as opposed to the “old Negro”… And the “New Negro” ", as one of them wrote, Alain Locke, one of the first African-Americans to obtain a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard, "suddenly seems to have escaped the tyranny of social intimidation and gotten rid of the psychology of imitation and implicit inferiority", going back to the North to escape segregation. Obviously, today we are hallucinating... And we hardly dare to write that it is there, finally, the works of art of the “New Negros” are hanging on the walls of the Met! So: long live the Harlem Renaissance.

As Natacha Wolinski explains in her article for the April issue of Beaux Arts Magazine, “it took Denise Murrell, curator of 19th and 20th century art at the Met, more than two years to bring together these works which tell a story little identified in France, that of the “Harlem Renaissance”, a movement which marked, just a century ago, a turning point in the cultural history of the United States. » For the first time, a community affirmed its history and its aesthetic. “When I was a student, my classes on 20th century art did not include the Harlem Renaissance,” explained Denise Murell during the press conference for the American exhibition. “Between the 1920s and 1940s, in unprecedented ways, black artists depicted all aspects of a new modern urban life. Some of them, like Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Archibald John Motley Jr or Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller spent time in Europe and established transatlantic links, contributing to the development of international modern art. They engaged in an avant-garde aesthetic not as observers but as protagonists. Freeing themselves from racial stereotypes, these black artists were able to tell their own stories and deliver their own definition and perception of themselves. »

In short, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” is not just an exhibition. This is a revolutionary event. Through some 160 works of art, it explores all the ways in which black artists depicted everyday modern life in the new black cities that took shape in the 1920s-40s in Harlem and Chicago's South Side of New York, as well as than in the United States as a whole, during the first decades of the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans began to move away from the segregated rural South. The first in-depth study of the subject in New York since 1987, the exhibition establishes the Harlem Renaissance as the first international modern art movement led by African Americans. It thus places black artists and their radically new representations of the modern black subject at the center, not only of our understanding of international modern art, but also of our modern life.

So let's enjoy discovering or rediscovering the icons of these years of artistic excitement, like Laura Wheeler Waring and her famous portrait of the contralto Marian Anderson (1944), "who sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the cancellation of his performance in a concert hall rejecting artists of color,” Natacha Wolinski reminds us. Or Samuel Joseph Brown Jr. with his double self-portrait in the mirror “which reflects a new black, pensive and conscious subjectivity” (1941). But also Charles Henry Alston and his moving Girl in a Red Dress (1934) echoing the Fang reliquary statuettes and recalling the necessary intersection of the arts, Aaron Douglas and his mural From Slavery Through Reconstruction (1934), “which unfolds a syncopated vision of the history of black emancipation (and which was) exceptionally detached from the Schomburg Center in order to be cleaned and integrated into the course.

Not to mention that if you can go to New York between now and July 28, you will enjoy a very rich cultural program organized around this exhibition, from jazz concerts to a symposium including workshops, podcasts and visits to feet of Harlem: yes, the Met has a lot to be forgiven for…


Valibri en RoulotteArticle written by Valibri in Roulotte

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