Monday, December 15, 2008

Writing Art

The Sheldon Museum of Art, which sits on UNL's campus, recently acquired 7 or 8 new pieces by well-known African American artists like Aaron Douglas, Charles White, Lois Mailou Jones and others. The director of the museum asked me to write two short entries for a catalog they are doing on the new work. Here are the works and the words I came up with:

• Charles White, "Frederick Douglass Lives Again (The Ghost of Frederick Douglass)"; pen & ink (1949):

Charles White was born in 1918 on the south side of Chicago, at the epicenter of the “great migration.” White’s maternal grandfather was a slave in Mississippi, his father a rail, steel and construction worker and his mother a domestic. Throughout his career, White’s art consistently emphasized the contributions of working-class African Americans and heroicized their struggles for freedom and equality.

From a young age, White displayed artistic talent and a voracious reading appetite. He was particularly influenced by Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology, The New Negro, which encouraged a younger generation of self-confident and politically aware African American artists to redefine blackness and push for racial change. The onslaught of the Great Depression furthered White’s commitment to social realism and politically relevant art.

During the 1930s, White became interested in the controversial murals of Diego Rivera. "I found a strong affinity in terms of my goals as an artist and what [Mexican muralists like Rivera] represented," White later recalled. Like many artists and writers of his generation, White worked for the Works Progress Administration and, in 1940, was commissioned to create a large mural celebrating the black press. The following year, White toured the American South, an experience he credited with pushing “racial forms and subjects” to the “foreground” in his work. After a series of health challenges and a divorce from sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett, White settled in New York City, where he participated in the city’s thriving black intellectual community, showed his work with other socially conscious artists and published in progressive and left periodicals.

In 1949, White completed “Frederick Douglass Lives Again (the Ghost of Frederick Douglass),” one of a number of powerfully expressive pen and ink drawings from this period that depict black experience under Jim Crow and the burgeoning post-war civil rights movement. The work emphasizes the inter-generational nature of the struggle for racial justice and testifies to both the strength and suffering of black Americans, what one critic called “the throbbing emotion of Negro spirituals.”

• Aaron Douglas, "Emperor Jones" series; woodcut print on Japanese paper (1929)





Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) is the best-known visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1899, Douglas was nurtured by a strong, progressive black community and influenced early by the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner. Like thousands of other African Americans, Douglas migrated North, graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1922 and then moving to Harlem in 1924, where he studied under German-born artist, Winold Reiss. Douglas’s work included paintings, illustrations and murals and combined elements of West African and Egyptian art, impressionism, cubism, art deco, and Mexican muralism into a unique visual style rooted in race pride. “I refuse to compromise,” he explained, “and see blacks as anything less than a proud majestic people.”

While Douglas is most famous for a series of large murals he completed during the depression-era, he first gained notoriety as an illustrator during the 1920s. Throughout the renaissance period, Douglas designed covers and illustrations for The Crisis (NAACP) and Opportunity (Urban League), as well as for literary works by James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. In 1925, Alain Locke hired Douglas to illustrate his groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro. The following year, Douglass, Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman and Bruce Nugent published FIRE!!, a controversial magazine that featured poems, stories and illustrations on jazz, blues, poverty, religion, prostitution and homosexuality. Embracing the ideology of the “New Negro,” Douglas strove to create an African American aesthetic that was both political and spiritual. “Let's bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected,” he wrote. “Then let's sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let's do the impossible. Let's create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic."

In 1926, Theater Arts Monthly commissioned Douglas to illustrate scenes from Eugene O’Neill’s racially charged play, “Emperor Jones.” The play helped launch the career of Paul Robeson and is credited as the first Broadway show to feature a racially integrated cast and black lead. The hard, flat contrasts of these energetic, monochromatic woodcuts, the repetitive use of geometric forms and the assertive, assured tone are typical of Douglas’s print work.

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