African-American Art and Literature Since the Harlem Renaissance | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine-April 2015

African-American Art & Literature
Since the Harlem Renaissance

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

    “The parallel and intersecting cultural enterprises of art and literature since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s are valuable sources for the study of race relations in America. Throughout the past century both artists and writers adopted forms of subterfuge and play to expose fixed power relationships between cultural groups. Their artistic experiments allowed for catharsis and critique across racial boundaries.”

This is the premise that has guided Elizabeth Muther, Associate Professor of English at Bowdoin College, to organize the small but powerful exhibition, entitled Letters and Shadows at the Becker Gallery in the Bowdoin College Museum. The exhibition which contains twenty-one works on paper and canvas pairs image with written word.  In some cases the visual artists have radically reinterpreted the text; in others they have collaborated as illustrators letting word and image share equal weight, and in still others words, themselves, have become graphic. In all there is a simplicity and searing honesty that comes from the unsparing use of line, shadow and light.


The exhibition begins with an arrestingly modern 1946 ink drawing, The Schomburg Library by Jacob Lawrence. Lawrence, known for his Cubist influenced oils, here demonstrates his extraordinary skill at draughtsmanship. The drawing shows a man, seated at a library table, consulting a propped-up book on which he appears to be taking notes. The perspective is viewed from above, giving the sitter an awkard, angular arrangement of arms and shoulders, while the lines of the room, table, and shelves narrow toward the foreground rather than the rear. The image is paired with citations from Phyllis Wheatley’s 1773 poems, and it is tantalizing to imagine this burly scholar reading the first published African-American writer’s verse. Wheatley’s paean to Imagination – “O thou the leader of the mental train: In full perfection all thy works are wrought, And thine the sceptre o’er the realms of thought” – seems an appropriate text for this African-American gentleman to read in Harlem’s majestic Schomburg Library, a building dedicated to the flourishing of African-American literature and arts.


The photography of James Vanderzee (1886-1983) is represented by his 1936 stately portrait of Josephine Becton At Home, showing an elegant, dignified African-American woman in a tastefully furnished Harlem parlor. Vanderzee, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, is best remembered for his comprehensive photographic documentation of this period of cultural awakening, but Vanderzee was an artist who sought the ideal in the real.  “ I tried to see that every picture was better-looking than the person,” he said of his portraits.


Of approximately the same period, a photograph from Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Documents depicts a man ascending a tall, narrow staircase. Unlikely Vanderzee’s photograph, there is little idealization in the image; the image is carefully composed and made dramatic by the angles and the sharply contrasting light and shadow, influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement.  Siskind, like Carl Van Vecten who was also closely involved with the Harlem Renaissance, was Caucasian, yet his lens captured the soul of his African-American subjects and their environment with striking veracity and empathy.




Several photographs by Roy DeCarava (1919-2009), the first African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, takes this use of light and shadow even further. There is the striking image of a child in the uppermost window of a Harlem tenement staring down from  a Rapunzel-like tower at the littered street below, the stories of the building demarcated by symmetrical wash lines.  Another, Graduation, juxtaposes an African-American young lady in a white bouffant gown standing on the rubble-strewn city pavement, apparently awaiting some means of conveyance to her ceremony. The deeply shadowed foreground and background, dominated by a billboard advertising a new Chevrolet, contrast with the shaft of light surrounding the girl – a potent dramatization of hope amid the forces of harsh reality.




Swiss-American photographer and documentary filmmaker, Robert Frank’s New Orleans Trolley (1955) makes similar use of De Carava’s compositional devices. Here the horizontal trolley car is divided by three vertical lines, signifying the compartments of the car as well as the insidious and continued practice of segregation: for it is only in the rear compartment that there are any African-American riders to be seen, and the man whose gaze engages the viewer’s has eyes filled with dark unanswered questions.




From these photographs, the exhibition moves to a series of dramatic prints and woodcuts, whose use of crisp, hard-edged light and shadow speak with an uncompromising directness.  The first grouping, consisting of five woodcuts or linocuts, is by Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), the Paris-trained African-American printmaker and muralist who also studied with Diego Rivera. Not only is the subject matter riveting, but Woodruff’s bold linear style combining Abstract Expressionism and influences from and the Futurists, make these prints eye-catching. The crazy, akimbo angles of the shacks in Coming Home and the spherical forms of the figures remind of L├ęger or Marguerite and William Zorach. By Parties Unknown, an image of the crumpled form of a black man who has been lynched and his body deposited on a church porch, is heart stopping. As an emotional segue, Sunday Promenade is jarring, once again contrasting African-American church-goers in their Sunday best, making their way through the teaming and ramshackle streets. “We are interested in expressing the South as a field, as a territory – its peculiar rundown landscape, its social and economic problems of the Negro people,” the artist writes. Trusty on a Mule depicts a black man wearing a sombrero and striped prison trousers on an ancient mule, making his way through that bleak landscape, looking nervously over his shoulder for the next mishap to catch him. And finally, Relics, shows a sway-backed mule posed in front of a hut whose sagging roof speaks to the same overwhelming burdens and cares shared by man and beast.




Woodruff’s prints provide a fitting transition to the exhibition’s centerpiece, the large cut-silhouette-on-paper by Kara Walker (1969 - ), Token Slave Maid in Mid Air (1998).




The simplicity of black-on-white embodies the exhibitions theme of shadow and light, black and white, while the suspended animation of the semi-nude woman in what appears to be a painful and humiliating position, is a wrenching cry for freedom amid the chains which encircle her. Walker’s part in the exhibition is augmented by several smaller works – three-dimensional silhouette cut-out illustrations for a contemporary children’s book, the artist’s tale of what Walker calls “a female slave whose life after emancipation veers far from her dreams of meritocracy, revealing that Freedom, a Fable is not just the title of the work but is also the lesson to be learned.”




An infusion of color comes next from Romare Beardon (1911-1988) in his 1973  silkscreen lithograph, Tidings, in which a steam train passes in the background and two-woman gossip in the right foreground. The movement of the train represents the traveling of news between the women, swift and connected across time and distance. The mask-like heads of the women reflect Beardon’s interest in African art and his formative influences: Western masters ranging from Duccio and Giotto to Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso.


The same preoccupation with African masks that infiltrates so much of 20th century art is seen in Charles White’s (1918-1979) portrait of Jerry, which depicts the head of an African-American sitter in bold geometric shapes.  White, also known for his WPA murals, White continues the modernist look inspired by Cezanne, L├ęger and others in the Post Cubist movements. Betye Saar (1926- ) continues the exhibition with colored mixed media illustrations for Zora Neale Hurston’s 1942 story, Now You’re Cookin’ with Gas, from her collection of so-called “Harlem slang” stories.




Four lithographs by Glenn Ligon (1960 -) synthesize the use of word and image that has inspired this exhibition. Entitled Ran Away, the prints, in the guise of antique “wanted” flyers, each contains a different verbal description of a run away slave ironically bearing the artist’s own name, illustrated by a corresponding “likeness.” The subtle differences among the four and the grossly stereotypical “portraits’ reveal unflattering and unjust white perceptions of black men.




A large-scale color etching for Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor’s story, Everything That Rises Must Converge, by Benny Andrews (1930-2006) looms toward the end of the exhibition. Illustrating an integrated bus with all its riders gazing skyward, Andrews’ etching makes use of bold color and spherical shapes juxtaposed with angular ones in the Expressionist mode to accompany O’Connor’s story in which an impoverished college graduate and his racially prejudiced mother board a bus occupied by a widely disparate cast of characters, among them two black people from very different social spectrums.




Another black-white woodcut illustration by Martin Puryear (1941 - ) of the story Esther from Harlem Renaissance author, Jean Toomer’s novel Cane demonstrates its indebtedness to Calder and Magritte. In the print Esther’s hair is de-anthropomorphized into a swirling mobile like series of lines drawn from Minimalist and Formalist sculpture.




The exhibition concludes with eight serigraphs by Faith Ringgold (1930 -) and John W. Wilson’s illustration for Richard Wright’s Down by the Riverside.  Ringgold’s prints from her 1960s American People series include an expressive portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King combined with his Letter from Birmingham City Jail and a print entitled Fun Town where the amusement park bears the inscription “closed to colored children.” Wilson’s etching with acquaint depicts an African-American family in a dory, the husband rowing, the wife protectively cradling a child, their spherical forms accentuated by the dark night and blue waves. Wilson, whose career was Boston-based, focused on the struggles of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century. In this print Wilson suggests both the Romanticism of Winslow Homer as well as the stark contrast of shadow and light embraced by most of the artists of this exhibition.


Wilson’s visuals for Richard Wright’s gripping narrative from his first book, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), provide a fitting conclusion to this stirring testimonial to the eloquence of 20-21st century African-American visual artists and writers. Wright’s agonizing tale of a black man, Mann, who loses his wife and unborn child in a flood when white people refuse him help and who, after killing a white citizen in self-defense, becomes a fugitive and ultimately a victim as the waters and his reality spiral out of control. This devastating tale of the atrocities perpetrated in the Jim Crow South, given voice by one of America’s greatest modern novelists and illustrated so lyrically and powerfully by one of its esteemed contemporary artists, speaks to the struggles, the sufferings, the triumphs of will and vision of African-American people and their artists who have given these experiences voice. 


Richard Wright’s lines from Black Boy articulate the essence of this creative experience:

“I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”


It is this inexpressible humanity which all the artists and writers of this exhibition convey so passionately. 


Cover Photo - Courtesy Becker Gallery/Bowdoin College Museum


April 2015

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Bookends (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
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