Harlem didn't only shuffle; EXHIBITIONS

The Harlem Renaissance was an important cultural movement, but did it see the birth of a new, `black' art?

Tim Hilton
Saturday 28 June 1997 23:02

"Rhapsodies in Black" at the Hayward Gallery is an interesting, frustrating exhibition about a neglected subject. The Harlem Renaissance - that is, the arts made by black people in upper Manhattan in the 1920s - has been much studied recently, but this is the first time that the visual arts in Harlem have been given separate attention. Perhaps this isn't surprising, for the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance were primarily in literature, theatre and jazz. In a less tangible way, a new black self-awareness was also an achievement of the times, and it is this consciousness of black identity that gives life to art that isn't otherwise of great importance.

So it is with the paintings of Archibald J Motley Jnr, who is the discovery of the show and deserves a wider reputation. I knew nothing about him and don't know much more now, since the catalogue of this exhibition fails to give any solid information about the artists on the walls and discusses every aspect of the Harlem Renaissance with the single exception of its visual art. The Hayward ought to document the work it displays. Anyway, I found Motley in Richard Powell's new book Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Thames & Hudson, pounds 7.95) from which we gather that he wasn't from Harlem at all. Motley (1891-1981) came from Chicago and must have been an artist with a wide outlook, for in the late Twenties he was painting not in Harlem but in Paris.

Looking at Motley's Brown Girl After the Bath, his Blues, and his Jockey Club - the club was in Paris and is said by Powell to have been a haunt of "the international art crowd" - I wonder about the nature of his style. Clearly he knew what he was doing and judged his effects. Did he have any professional training? It's not very likely, but there are some sophistications in his manner. One has then to ask whether an independent black painting style could have been created in the 1920s that wasn't amateur, "primitive" or "naive" and at the same time didn't look like successful modern art by white men. Surely this was the crucial question for any black painter of the day, but "Rhapsodies in Black" and its catalogue fail to engage with the issue.

There aren't enough artists in the show to give an overall view of Harlem's art - certainly one can't discern a movement in the usual art-historical sense, though the Harlem Renaissance as a whole was obviously a movement of great importance. I suspect that there was a lot of amateur art in Harlem and elsewhere that either hasn't survived or is not considered good enough for a museum exhibition. Charles Alston's Girl in a Red Dress is intriguing because one can't quite tell whether it is by an amateur or not. The lower part of the picture seems unschooled, if that's the right word, while the background has a light modern touch one rarely finds in amateur painting. The hint of Modigliani may be coincidental. I would like to know more about Alston, who is not mentioned in Powell's book. No luck in the Hayward catalogue either. It just says that this very pleasant picture is reminiscent of Wallace Thurman's 1929 novel The Blacker the Berry.

As so often, literature takes precedence over art. There is a little case of contemporary books in the exhibition and we see that at least some Harlem artists were effective illustrators of magazines and new literature. Note, however, that the Winold Reiss who has a prominent role in the show was a white Austrian with an interest in classifying "racial types". His drawings of the poet Langston Hughes and two unidentified Harlem girls are purely Viennese, while his more "black" ink drawings, Harlem at Night and Interpretation of Harlem Jazz, have too much racial stereotyping in their style. Even without their cubist, art-deco structures, so obviously European, one can't imagine them being the work of a black Harlem artist. Another white artist in the show is the Englishman Edward Burra, who visited Harlem in the mid-1930s. He had a frank and friendly attitude to the district, but tended toward caricature when his art approached real people.

Winold Reiss had the sensitivity and good sense to encourage the young Kansas City-born Aaron Douglas, and may have transformed him from an illustrator into a muralist. At the Hayward, the large spaces devoted to Douglas's series of paintings Aspects of Negro Life make an appropriate environment for mural-type canvases that are above all concerned with black dignity. With Archibald Motley, Douglas is the important painter in "Rhapsodies in Black". In many ways they are opposites. Motley doesn't care too much about skill, and he likes clowning and street life. Douglas is a careful painter, even an academic one, and his vision of the black experience is symbolic and retrospective. Motley uses heated colour; Douglas's palette is pale and reserved. Thus another question is raised but neither answered nor discussed. Do these characteristics make Douglas a more "white" painter than Motley?

Douglas's concern with building a black American mythology is also found in Jacob Lawrence's gouaches about Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slave who became leader of the Haitian Revolution. There are 41 of these sheets, all of them energetic and imaginative. Perhaps they don't work as well in an art gallery as they might in a book with a commentary. Lawrence, now 80, was in London last week. I hope he was taped by someone from the BBC. You can hear lots of jazz and look at old films when visiting "Rhapsodies in Black", but it lacks the oral history that is so moving in accounts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. So a final question. Was not the Harlem Renaissance more an oral than a visual movement? Its novels caught black speech in a way never before seen in print, so did its theatre and jazz. Here was an advancement for black people's culture that visual art could not share.

Hayward, SE1 (0171 928 3144), to 17 Aug.

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