Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans from the rural South migrated to the cities in the North during and after World War I looking for jobs and better education for their children. The new arrivals found themselves channeled into decaying, overcrowded ghettoes, culturally isolated from other populations and recent immigrants. This isolation, however, created a new sense of community and a growth in racial pride, which led to an interest in African heritage during the nineteen twenties. Filled with a new sense of self-reliance, many African-Americans felt a need to redefine the meaning of the Black experience in America through the creative process. Artists such as Henry Tanner (1859-1937), whose family belonged to a small group of integrated middle-class Blacks, were viewed with suspicion by the new generation of artists.
He studied with the important American artist Thomas Eakins, subsequently spent much of his life as an expatriate living in France, and was eventually elected to the French National Academy.
The emerging group of Black painters, dancers, musicians, and writers, led by scholars Alain Locke and W. E. B. DuBois, and the poet Langston Hughes, among others, preferred to contribute their efforts towards a New Negro Movement, searching for alternate lifestyles that were inspired by the folk culture the previous Black generation had rejected.
The New Negro Movement also became known as the Harlem Renaissance (or rebirth) since Harlem was the center of this new creative energy. White intellectuals found Harlem very attractive as well, describing the new forms of cultural expression as “primitive,” “exotic,” and “sensual.” With this perspective, African-Americans continued as the subjects of myths and stereotypes to the majority white culture.
Meanwhile, the role of the Negro artist was hotly debated, with Black writers and artists who accepted traditional white values on one side of the argument and the “New Negro” on the other. The Black intellectual elite, including writer Wallace Thurman and editor George Schyler, expected artists to be concerned with aesthetic decisions while enhancing the image while society had of “Negro culture.” They felt that this was one way to break down cultural barriers towards their goal of assimilation. Younger artists wanted to retain a separate, cultural identity and to present themselves as true to life as possible, reflecting the crucial social problems of their time.
ARCHIBALD MOTLEY. JR. (Figures 1-4)
Archibald Motley, Jr., born in 1891, came from a family that migrated from New Orleans to Chicago. His artistic talent was discovered in high school, and a sponsor enabled him to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago for four years. While still at school, he worked as a laborer and experienced the street life of Black urban Americans. This world, which existed both in Harlem and in Paris during the 1920s, included prostitutes, gamblers, and those who frequented illegal drinking establishments, and was the source for some of his most memorable paintings, such as Blues (1929).
His compositions, rendered with sharp-edged brushstrokes in vivid color schemes, bordered on caricature. These vibrant and dramatic works of art presented a striking contrast to his earlier portraits of African-Americans, which were objective psychological studies. Examples of this genre are found in Mending Socks (1922) and
Old Snuff Dipper
(1928). A few years later, Motley completed Blues (1929) and
Parisian Street Scene
(1929), which, shown alongside his portraits, demonstrate a shift from academic realism to a more folk-oriented style of painting.
In 1928, he was recognized by the art establishment with a one-man show in at the Ainslee Galleries, New York. Nevertheless, patronage for African-Americans, even acclaimed painters, was almost nonexistent and Motley was one of many artists during the Depression who supported themselves by creating murals for the Federal Arts Project (1935-39), a division of the Works Progress Administration.
WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (Figures 5-11)
William H. Johnson (1901Ð1970) came to New York in 1918 just as the Harlem Renaissance was in the making. He brought with him an interest in art gained from looking at cartoons in the local newspapers of his home state, South Carolina. After four years of study at the National Academy of Design, during which time he worked as a hotel porter, cook, and dockworker, a friendly teacher helped raise enough money to send him to Paris to develop his artistic talents.
Johnson had been awarded numerous prizes, and
produced between 1921 and 1926, is an example of his academic style of painting in New York. While in Paris, he met Henry O. Tanner and was influenced by modern French artists. This exposure to different kinds of painters led Johnson to experiment with his own style, and by the late nineteen twenties, he settled on an interpretation of German Expressionism (a manner of painting using coarse brushstrokes, distorted forms, and bright, unrealistic color to convey feelings) as seen in his
Around this time, he married a Danish woman who was a ceramicist and textile artist, and they went to live in a small fishing village in Denmark. He related closely to the country people’s way of living, because it reminded him of his own people in the rural South. A few years later, the couple traveled to North Africa in order to learn about African pottery and other native arts and crafts, and those experiences increased Johnson’s interest in what he perceived as the primitive ways of people.
As this interest grew, so did a need to change his way of doing art. He wanted his paintings to represent the spiritual awakening within himself regarding his African-American cultural heritage, and made a conscious decision to “unlearn” previous academic training. Johnson worked hard towards formulating this new artistic goal.
Harbor Under the Midnight Sun
(1935-38) is an example of that transitional phase, and upon his return to Harlem in 1938, Johnson devoted his energy to creating paintings that expressed aspects of the Black experience in America.
The works of art of this period (1939-41) are simplified into crude and somewhat awkward shapes using four or five colors with little or no change in value.
Subject matter regarding traditional Christian themes appeared in Johnson’s work during these years, but his interpretations broke with tradition and celebrated Black Christianity. All of the figures in
I Baptize Thee
(1940) are black, and the clothes and postures of the individuals are not very different from those in his paintings of modern day themes. Johnson intended his works of art to be interpreted as social statements, linking the contemporary suffering of an oppressed people to the story of Christianity.