Published: December 14, 2010
“The Negro’s career in the fine arts is little known to the general or the racial public,” lamented Alain Locke some 70 years ago. As the intellectual godfather of the New Negro Movement that flourished after World War I, Locke’s observation suggested that although America’s multicultural society had been enriched by the unique contributions of African American visual artists, their achievements were largely overlooked.
Early in America’s history, the pervasive institution of slavery dominated the lives of African Americans. Removed from their cultural roots, held down by prejudice and lacking the means to advance economically and socially, they faced nearly insuperable obstacles to fine arts development.
In spite of such constraints, Joshua Johnston (circa 1765‱830), a self-taught Baltimore artist who is recognized as the first professional African American painter, succeeded with stiffly posed, yet endearing portraits that suggest his rapport with largely white sitters.
For later generations of artists, emancipation and the end of the Civil War meant that, technically, all African Americans were free, but their lives were circumscribed by discrimination and tradition. White society still refused to believe that blacks could achieve in the visual arts, denying them patronage and training. However, like Johnston in his day, some highly motivated, talented African Americans, notably painter Edward M. Bannister and sculptor Edmonia Lewis, persevered and gained recognition.
Like other American artists active in the mainstream prior to World War II, African American artists worked largely in European-inspired styles. They rendered portraits in the English manner, executed landscapes inspired by the Barbizon and Hudson River schools and sculpted in the classical mode. While creating works equal to those of their more advantaged white colleagues, black artists generally avoided overt racial subjects for fear of jeopardizing their acceptance.
In recent decades, black artists have enjoyed greater recognition as the civil rights movement stimulated new interest in their work, as African American museums were established and as minority painters and sculptors found increasing acceptance in mainstream art circles. Slowly but surely, the achievements of black artists have been brought to public attention.
Starting with a trailblazing exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976 †called “arguably the most important exhibition of African American art ever assembled” by eminent black art historian Richard J. Powell †organized by artist and preeminent historian David Driskell, major exhibitions have showcased the considerable accomplishments of African American artists. But for a variety of reasons, the struggles and successes of many black artists remain relatively unknown.
The role private collectors have played in promoting appreciation for African American artists is epitomized by the collection of Dallas-based entertainment promoter Arthur Primas, selections from whose significant trove are on view at the Dayton Art Institute through January 30. Comprising 69 works by 34 artists, “100 Years of African American Art: The Arthur Primas Collection” displays paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture dating from the early 1900s to 2008.
“The art I collect must tell a social story about different people in different areas of the country and what they have gone through,” says Primas. While hardly comprehensive, the collection offers important insights into art that primarily explores the nature of and impediments to freedom, a theme central to American identity and a universal quest of people everywhere.
Dayton Museum chief curator Will South, who organized the show, says he chose some pieces for their “technical skill” and others for their “emotional power.” Displayed in seven galleries and organized chronologically, the exhibition makes clear, says South, that these African American artists participated broadly and deeply in the development of American art.
The exhibition begins with the work of Bannister (1827‱901), who is said to have decided to become a professional painter to disprove a derogatory story printed in The New York Herald Tribune in 1867 that suggested African Americans could appreciate art but were unable to create it. Responding to the challenge, Bannister caused a stir when he received a first-place medal at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition, becoming the first African American to win an award at a national art exhibition.
A native of Canada, he was supported by New England abolitionists in Boston and then Providence, painting portraits and subtly luminous, atmospheric landscapes and seascapes. Bannister’s ode to pastoral tranquility, “Lazy Day,” 1893, reflected the widespread American belief in the ability of man (and beast) to coexist peacefully with their nation’s bountiful nature. As art historian Sheila F. Patton has observed, “Bannister effectively adapted the style tenets of&amiliar European theme[s] to suit an American context in which stability was desired during a period of rapid social change.”
In the wake of World War I and the beginning of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North came the artistic flowering of Locke’s New Negro Movement in the Harlem Renaissance (circa 1914‱934) †a burst of creative output by talented African American writers, musicians and artists. Many were spurred by the exhortations of philosophy professor Locke, who, according to Driskell, “saw the black artist as the visionary of the ‘New Negro Movement&He felt that the black artist could rediscover the ancestral arts of Africa and&nspire all Americans of African ancestry with a pride in the glories of their ancient past.”
Midwest-born, Paris-trained Aaron Douglas (1899‱979) responded by creating paintings, murals and illustrations about the African American experience in an abstract “African style,” with figures silhouetted in profile using a single major color, varying in values from light to dark. “I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people,” he declared.
Douglas’s compelling visual vocabulary captured the spirit of his time while establishing a new African American aesthetic and utopian vision. He was equally adept at Impressionism, as demonstrated in “Haitian Landscape, 1938,” a serene, bucolic scene set in the country liberated from the French by Touissant L’Ouverture †later immortalized by Jacob Lawrence †a symbol of hope for African Americans.
Brothers Beauford (1901‱979) and Joseph Delaney (1904‱994), sons of a Methodist minister, offered differing visions of life. Beauford, who excelled at both abstractions and expressive portraiture, as exemplified by “Portrait of Carolyn Davis, Poet,” lived in Paris the last 25 years of his life. He was considered there the most important black artist of his day. Joseph often painted biblical scenes, like “The Last Supper,” replete with exaggerated physical forms and idiosyncratic colors.
A highly important figure in African American art history, Howard University professor James A. Porter (1903‱970) wrote the pioneering Modern Art in 1943, the first systematic assessment of African American art. A mentor to Driskell, he was also an accomplished painter, as exemplified by “Man With Ukulele,” one of several works art historian Stephen Hardy describes in the exhibition brochure as presenting “Black individuals as larger-than-life metaphors of strength and resilience against the ominous backdrop of the times they inhabit.”
Another significant artist/historian, Romare Bearden (1911‱988) co-authored a history of African American art and moved through social realism and abstraction before settling on figurative, quasi-abstract collage as the best means to convey the black experience. His colorful paintings and collages reflect observations about growing up in Mecklenburg County, N.C., and his adulthood in Harlem. “Mecklenburg Autumn,” a 1979 lithograph, demonstrates his idiosyncratic style, mastery of collage and affection for the rituals of life around his boyhood home.
Hughie Lee-Smith (1915‱999), one of the more underrecognized artists in the exhibition, painted semi-Surrealist images that ranged from pictures of alienated youth, such as “Navy Sailor,” and views of isolated, disengaged figures in strange landscapes, such as the couple trying to dance on uncertain footing in “Dancing on a Dune.” As Driskell has observed, Lee-Smith’s paintings “possess an enigmatic surrealistic quality that connects him with Edward Hopper and Giorgio de Chirico.”
Arguably the foremost African American artist of the Twentieth Century, Jacob Lawrence (1917′000) became keenly aware of black history while growing up amid the Harlem Renaissance. He first came to public attention at the age of 21 with his powerful “Touissant L’Ouverture Series,” a narrative tracing the saga of the black man who led the late Eighteenth Century liberation of Haiti, the only successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere.
Lawrence achieved critical acclaim and national fame a few years later with his epic, 60-panel “The Migration of the Negro,” an unsentimental chronicling of the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A highly sophisticated painter, Lawrence’s intentionally primitive style †flat forms, pure color and compelling design and pattern †gave his themes a captivating, symbolic intensity that underscored his sense of social justice. Other narrative series celebrated the lives of John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Lawrence’s oeuvre remains compelling and timeless to this day.
Another star of the exhibition, an enormously powerful and unforgettable artist who deserves greater recognition, is Charles White (1918‱979). Grounded in the academic, realist tradition by study at the Art Institute of Chicago, he started out painting historical murals before switching to temperas and black and white woodcuts and works on paper that documented the humanity and strength of ordinary African Americans. His oeuvre is notable for personal, emotionally compelling vignettes of his people as he saw them that are unmatched by any other black artist. “Gospel Singers,” a gorgeously hued, vigorously painted tempera, honors an important black tradition, while black and white works, like the charcoal “J’Accuse” series, reflect White’s concerns about racial discrimination.
The incomparable Elizabeth Catlett (b 1915), best known for highly charged political sculptures and prints, is represented by three strong sculptures and a riveting lithograph of resolute abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. A native of Washington, D.C., and Howard University graduate, she has lived in Mexico since 1946. Following her own dictum that “art is important only to the extent that it helps the liberation of our people,” she has created numerous compelling, socially relevant images, particularly of the struggles and dignity of African American women. “In her sophistication and inventive primitivism, she stands apart from other sculptors,” observed Driskell in 1976.
The striking work of John Biggers (1924′001), a longtime educator and powerful artist, is highlighted by “Upper Room,” which recreates the site of the Last Supper as a Southern shotgun house carried by strong black women. This suggests that females provide the strength on which faith is based, a faith that holds African American families together. Inspired by studies at Hampton University under Catlett and White, Biggers devoted his career to developing black talent and evoking the African American experience in bold, memorable works. “He&earch[ed for] a rich heritage,” says art historian Samella Lewis, “which can be expressed through individual attitudes and experiences.”
Robert Colescott (b 1925), another educator/artist, often confronts societal mores and stereotypes in paintings that are at once enigmatic, often joyful, whimsical and satirical, and always thought-provoking. “Tobacco: The Holdouts,” suggests the plight of nicotine addicts, black and white alike.
In 1976, Driskell argued in the catalog for “Two Centuries of Black American Art” that only when African Americans “recognize the historical patterns of isolation and accept the responsibility of supporting those artists who express themselves in universal language of form will black American artists be seen as major contributors to the art of this country.” Today, black artists are escaping stereotyping and establishing their own identities as creative individuals, free to explore themes that range from social protest and folk art to pure aesthetics.
These artists share more than their African American heritage. They share the unstoppable drive for self-expression and communication that propels all creative souls. The Primas Collection offers solid documentation of the significant place of African American art in the context of American art in general, providing a solid foundation for the inclusion of Twenty-First Century black artists in mainstream art.
Also on view are abstract oil pastels invoking African textiles by veteran Dayton artist Willis “Bing” Davis. They are evocative and appealing.
The Dayton Art Institute is at 456 Belmonte Park North. For information, www.daytonartinstitute.org or 937-223-5277.
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