Museum  February 28, 2024  Natasha H. Arora

The Met’s Harlem Renaissance Show Is Outstandingly Joyful

© Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr. All reserved rights 2023/ Bridgeman Images. Image courtesy Hampton University

Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (American, 1891–1981), Black Belt, 1934. Oil on canvas. Framed: 33 in. × 40 5/8 in. × 1 3/4 in. (83.8 × 103.2 × 4.4 cm). Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton,Virginia 

To visit The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism is to mosey your way through a house party at Jay Gatsby’s or the Cotton Club in the 1930s; but instead of dodging sweaty dancers and spilling drinks, you zigzag through a labyrinth of 160 glittering works. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s just-opened blockbuster exhibition, curated by Merryl H. and JamesS. Tisch Curator at Large Denise Murrell, not only reintroduces us to the Harlem Renaissance as historical precedent, it defines the movement as a contemporary force. 

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of rich cultural and intellectual activity among African Americans that emerged at the close of World War I with a deliberate burst of expression by Black artists in literature, art, and popular culture. As the Great Migration began and Black people relocated from the rural South to metropolises in the urban North, cities like New York buzzed with anti-Victorian sensibilities, and the “New Negro” (a term popularized to define Black self-possession and modernity) emerged as whole and separate from stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. 

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. © Art Resource, NY

William Henry Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Street Life, Harlem, ca. 1939-1940. Oil on plywood Framed: 52 in. × 44 5/16 in. × 3 in. (132.1 × 112.6 × 7.6 cm). 

This “New Negro” buried Jim Crowe caricatures under plurality and dimension: there was literature from W.E.B. Du Bois, jazz by Louis Armstrong, paintings by Archibald Motley and Laura Wheeler Waring, and magazines like The Crisis (The official magazine of the NAACP, of which W.E.B. Du Bois was the founding editor) pieces of all of which The Met proudly presents. Yet the reach of the Harlem Renaissance extended well past New York’s city limits to the cultural scenes of Chicago, as well as Paris and London as African and Caribbean migrants made their way across Western Europe. 

Curator Murrell’s triumph lies in the steady, forceful, but playful articulation of the notion that the movement was unrestrictedly global, it spanned a variety of media, and it was fundamentally present.

Photo by Juan Trujillo. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Laura Wheeler Waring Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Laura Wheeler Waring (American, 1887-1948), Girl in pink dress, ca. 1927. Oil on canvas 36 ¼ x 26 ¼ x 2 ¼ .

Evidence of the Harlem Renaissance’s universality saturates The Met’s Gallery 999 using nods to Egyptian funerary masks in Ronald Moody’s sculpture, L’Homme (1937), and scatterings of Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse, each situated to fabricate a cycle of artistic influence. The Met prints the debatably unfair demand with which many 20th-century Black American or European artists were burdened—that was to adhere stylistically to either African or Western aesthetics. Writer and ‘philosopher architect’ of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke, whose best-known work was the anthology The New Negro, wrote in favor imitating and therefore revitalizing African and Egyptian aesthetics. Others, however, preferred W.E.B. Du Bois’ interest in academic and contemporary techniques. The Met presents both perspectives in equal measure. 

The exhibition is organized into various sections that showcase the facets of Black artistic genius from different angles. The first section, “The Thinkers,” offers portraits of Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes with early editions of their great works, The New Negro, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and One-Way Ticket, respectively. Later sections such as “Everyday Life in the New Black Cities” and “Portraiture and the Modern Black Subject” offer works that give snapshots of quotidian society, with dances, meals, and ordinary activities. “Still Life,” “Landscapes,” and “European Modernism and the Transatlantic Diaspora” axiomatically nod toward European influences over American art, deeming the Harlem Renaissance the latest installment in dominant artistic legacies. 

Image: Anna-Marie Kellen. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Installation view of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism featuring works by Aaron Douglas. 

The Harlem Renaissance also touts a staggering variety of media, ranging from oil on canvas and watercolor on graphite paper to photography by James Van Der Zee and films by Oscar Micheaux. The show’s determined multi-modal display reflects the rich output of Black talents, which are so often overshadowed by narratives of slavery and violence in the contemporary collective conscience. The variety and sheer volume of art demonstrate the skill and play of the Harlem Renaissance.

The section entitled “Cultural Philosophy and History Painting” devotes a display to the works of Aaron Douglas, the period’s most celebrated history painter. Douglas created large-scale works that served as illustrations for James Weldon Johnson’s book God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). The paintings Creation (1935), Noah Built the Ark (1935), Let My People Go (1935-39), and Judgement Day (1939) blend Black identity and modernity with antediluvian and traditionally White doctrines, while Douglas’ Still Life perpetuates the Dutch tradition. 

William Henry Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Moon over Harlem, ca. 1943-1944.
courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; Gift of the Harmon Foundation Image © Art Resource, NY

William Henry Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Moon over Harlem, ca. 1943-1944. Oil on plywood Framed: 35 7/8 in. × 43 1/8 in. × 2 1/2 in. (91.1 × 109.5 × 6.4 cm) 

William Henry Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Woman in Blue, c. 1943. Oil on burlap Framed: 35 × 27 in. (88.9 × 68.6 cm)
Courtesy Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. Photo by Mike Jensen

William Henry Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Woman in Blue, c. 1943. Oil on burlap Framed: 35 × 27 in. (88.9 × 68.6 cm) 

Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (American, 1891–1981), The Picnic, 1936. Oil on canvas 30 x 36 inches (76.2 x 91.4 cm)
© Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr. All reserved rights 2023 / Bridgeman Images Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Juan Trujillo

Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (American, 1891–1981), The Picnic, 1936. Oil on canvas 30 x 36 inches (76.2 x 91.4 cm) Howard University Gallery of Art, 47.22.P 

Laura Wheeler Waring (American, 1887–1948s), Girl in Green Cap, 1930. Oil on canvas 30 × 25 in. (76.2 × 63.5 cm)
Courtesy Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © Laura Wheeler Waring. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

Laura Wheeler Waring (American, 1887–1948s), Girl in Green Cap, 1930. Oil on canvas 30 × 25 in. (76.2 × 63.5 cm)

James Van Der Zee (American, 1886–1983), Couple, Harlem, 8 in. × 9 15/16 in. (20.3 × 25.2 cm)
Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

James Van Der Zee (American, 1886–1983), Couple, Harlem, 8 in. × 9 15/16 in. (20.3 × 25.2 cm) 

Survey Graphic. Volume LIII, No. 11, March 1, 1925. Harlem: Mecca of the new negro, 1925.
Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Friends of the Thomas J. Watson Library. Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Survey Graphic. Volume LIII, No. 11, March 1, 1925. Harlem: Mecca of the new negro, 1925. Height: 12 3/16 in. (31 cm) 

Installation view of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo Anna-Marie Kellen. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Installation view of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Installation view of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo Anna-Marie Kellen. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Installation view of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

These European values are reiterated in “Motley in Paris: The New Negro Artist Abroad,” the section of Archibald Motley’s paintings—such as Dans la rue, Paris (1929) and Blues (1929)—that reflected the artist’s enjoyment of Parisian lifestyles, as many Black American artists did when they visited France. Largely unencumbered by images of slavery or violence, The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism reconfigures a viewer’s concept of Black art by detaching tragedy from activism.

The playfulness of this exhibition is what makes it such a joy to experience; the Harlem Renaissance successfully rewrites The Met’s critically-derided first attempt at an exhibition on African-American art, the 1969 Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900—1968, which caused a scandal for not including artwork by African American artists. Where that exhibition was utterly barren of artwork and resisted dialoguing with the Civil Rights movement, The Harlem Renaissance surveys how a great movement endures across geographical and cultural strata. Explosive, pluralistic, and above all, current, The Harlem Renaissance is a refreshing celebration.

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 28, 2024. 

40.779402418715, -73.9634031

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism
Start Date:
February 25, 2024
End Date:
July 28, 2024
Venue:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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