Thursday, October 07, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #2 - Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers

Aaron Douglas. Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers. Mural series comprised of four panels: Song of the Towers, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, An Idyll of the Deep South, and The Negro in an African Setting. Oil on canvas, 1934.
The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division.

I have a special connection to this work. When I went back to college (at the age of 47!) to finish my bachelor's and become certified to teach art, I had the privilege of taking some Art History classes (which I went on to teach and love with a passion). The last class I took was an African American Art class, taught by Dr. Jennifer Way at the University of North Texas. The reading list was long. The course had a sizable focus on the Harlem Renaissance which I knew NOTHING about! How was that possible? Such a fantastic flowering of artistic expression born in the United States, and I had never even heard about it. Dr. Way gave us a challenge - go to our comprehensive art history textbooks and search for African American art in them. Nada. Nothing - or next to nothing. The tome of Art History (unnamed but easily guessed at), out of over 1,000 pages of art history, had two paragraphs about the Harlem Renaissance and a pitiful representation of modern and contemporary African American artists. I was appalled and it left a lasting impression for me. This period of artistic expression should be taught and celebrated! Aaron Douglas' work excites me so because of not only the formal qualities of his paintings, but the modern expression, the passion and the soul of the African American that he depicts. I just love his work.

The Harlem Renaissance was an incredible explosion of intellectual and artistic talent between 1910-1940 in Harlem, New York. The neighborhood was largely black, impacted by the Great Migration in which over one million and a half African Americans left rural areas across the U.S. to find work and new opportunity in urban centers like New York City. The new demographics spawned a search for new expressions of black cultural identity from their African heritage and ancestry. The artists of this time were looking for ways to come to terms with the duality of their African roots and their American birth rite. Sadly, the Depression hit the movement hard in the 1930s and it withered, but it spawned incredible talent: writers W.E.B. DuBois and Alan Locke, poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, visual artists Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence, and jazz musicians Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.

Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, studied art at the University of Nebraska and taught art in Kansas City. He went to Harlem in 1925 and started working as an illustrator for books for Cullen and Hughes as well as African American magazines Crisis and Opportunity. His work was critically acclaimed and eventually he was commissioned to paint a four-panel series for a branch of the New York Public Library - Aspects of Negro Life.

Song of the Towers is the last panel and the only one that has an urban context. The central figure is playing a saxophone (symbolic of the jazz movement) in the midst of the New York City skyline. The emotion displayed is not clear, is could be celebratory or defiant. Far in the distance is the Statue of Liberty, an icon of freedom, in the center of concentric circles that radiate out in the composition. The figures are in silhouette against the jutting, rectilinear buildings thrusting skyward. This style of portraying the men in this abstracted way became known as "Egyptian form" style because they are shown in profile. The lower part of the painting show men with industrial imagery - cogs and smokestacks. The figures are tense and struggling juxtaposed with the central figure which speaks of equality for African Americans in this new time and place. The colors are warm and throbbing. This is not a calm image. There is visual tension with the use of the complimentary colors of red and green. The green is not the color associated with growth, but has an ominous feel.

Aspects of Negro Life depicts the development of African American culture from the village in Africa, through the crisis of slavery and racial oppression, ending in the glimpse of the Harlem Renaissance in the Song of the Towers. The series has visual unity compositionally, repeating the elements of the silhouette, concentric circles and bold color. The power of the silhouette is its ability to represent a group without individuality, making it more powerful visually. This celebration of the African culture was an important step to illuminate the accomplishments of African Americans, though it would be decades before they would begin to gain rights and freedoms and not be treated as second-class citizens. This modern imagery was important as a sign of progress for men and women who had much to give to America.

Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting

Aspects of Negro Life: Idyll of the Deep South

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction


stonecrestcollectibles said...

I feel strongly learning the topic, however I need to learn more on this topic.
Carry on your updates..!!


African American art, black African art

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, It helped me a lot on a seminar a group i was part of carried out in relation to the Harlem Renaissance. My part was that of visual arts and this was a great help. Thank you =)