The Internationalism of the Harlem Renaissance

In the galleries of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stood just feet away from a room filled with large and magnificent paintings by Aaron Douglas, among the most celebrated and studied painters in the history of 20th-century African-American art. Yet it was a small nearby still life — “Cauliflower and Pumpkin” by Lois Mailou Jones — that stopped me in my tracks. Don’t get me wrong, the Douglas paintings made my heart race in their own way. But there was something uniquely forceful about the way this quiet painting commanded space in the same room as Douglas’s heroic illustrations of Black history. This unlikely proximity is a reminder that the Harlem Renaissance was many things at once, encompassing Douglas’s portrayals of the trials and tribulations endured during and after slavery, but also a Black female artist’s desire and freedom to paint vegetables. 

Curated by Denise Murrell, the exhibition catches its visitors in the throes of this multiplicity. It brings together 160 works of art, many by well-known artists like Douglas, James Van Der Zee, and Archibald Motley, but an almost equal number are by artists who have not received due attention, like Laura Wheeler Waring and William H. Johnson. As the title suggests, its conceit is in part geographic: works like Palmer Hayden’s “Nous Quatre à Paris” (1930) and Nola Hatterman’s portrait “Louis Richard Drenthe” (1930), depicting a Surinamese musician then living in Amsterdam, underline that the Harlem Renaissance was not exclusive to Harlem, but was a globally networked movement of sprawling self-determination energized by the new modalities of Black subjectivity that emerged in the early and mid-20th century. 

Lois Mailou Jones, “Cauliflower and Pumpkin” (1938)

But most compelling to me is the way the exhibition deals with this wide geographic scope alongside an equally wide and tangled intellectual scope. The artwork on view ripples with the polyphonic debates and heated questioning that gave the movement its texture. How did Black artists want to represent themselves? What, if anything, is the responsibility of Black artists? Is it — as Mailou Jones’s still life suggests — to their own artistic freedom? Or is “all art propaganda” with embedded political motivations, as W.E.B. Du Bois famously argued in his 1926 address “Criteria of Negro Art”? These tense questions, then nascent, formed the contours of discussions that continue to trouble the waters of Black artistic and intellectual work today, as the visibility of “Black art” has led to renewed questions around what the term means and what its politics are. 

From the start, the exhibition engages with these questions, through an introduction to the movement’s leading thinkers and writers. It opens with twinned portraits of Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois — both of whom are often named among the most important Harlem Renaissance thinkers. Notably, the portraits were rendered by the German-born artist Winold Reiss, whose recurring presence in the galleries attests to the multi-national and multi-racial history of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke and Du Bois’s images faces a vitrine of books penned by authors including Locke himself, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson. This sensitivity to the textual pervades the exhibition, and almost every gallery contains similar vitrines that testify to the rich literary layers of the period. 

Murrell’s curating demonstrates how these ideologies and debates were not just theoretical, but permeated the realities of Black life. For example a pensive self-portrait by Samuel Joseph Brown (1941) reifies Du Bois’s term “double-consciousness,” which refers to the idea that Black people always see themselves simultaneously through two sets of eyes: their own gaze and the external, White gaze. The artist is literally doubled as he looks at his mirror reflection, probing his interiority with inquisitive and slightly unsettled eyes.  

Samuel Joseph Brown, “Self-Portrait” (1941)

Also foregrounded are the negotiations of class and respectability politics that surfaced in everyday life and in discussions among in writers like Hughes, Du Bois, and George Schuyler. For example, a James Van Der Zee photograph of an elegant tea salon at millionaire Madam C.J. Walker’s apartment hang next to Palmer Hayden’s painting “Nous Quatre à Paris,” which once drew ire for what some thought was an embrace of base anti-Black stereotypes — the men in this painting are pictured drinking and playing pool, and have exaggeratedly thick lips and wide noses. In this juxtaposition, we see a war in images, a fraught contest over how Black people would represent themselves after centuries of external definition. This war remains alive and well in today’s post-Obama age, when many are still attached to the aspiration of “Black faces in high places”: we are still (unfortunately) burdened with the question of representation, and many are still (unfortunately) anxious about images of Blackness that — like Hayden’s — don’t appeal to respectability politics.  

Considerations like these can leave us with a somewhat bitter aftertaste today, when many Black artists have catapulted to levels of visibility, power, and wealth that would have been unthinkable to the artists on view in the show. It is an exciting moment. Yet, with Black artists arriving at the supposed apex of success and recognition, open critique of work by Black hands can feel sparse, if not unwelcome. These conversations exist, but we have become far too beholden to an ethic of “rooting for everybody Black,” as popularized by actress Issa Rae. We have, according to this idea, too much to lose for the public, sharp-toothed debates like the ones we see unfolding in this exhibition. Also suspicious is the contemporary art market’s taste for figurative portraiture by legibly Black creators; premium prices on “dignified” representations of our bodies and faces is, in my opinion, too easy a solution to centuries of racist exclusion from the fine art milieu. Harlem Renaissance artists and thinkers labored over ideas so that we could move beyond the same questions of representation and respect.

Installation view of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Met
Winold Reiss, “Alain Leroy Locke” (1925)
Installation view of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Met
Winold Reiss, “Langston Hughes” (1925)
Installation view of paintings by Aaron Douglas in The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Met
Palmer Hayden “Nous Quatre à Paris” (We Four in Paris) (c. 1930)

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 28. The exhibition was curated by Denise Murrell.

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