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Friday, April 18, 2014

Aaron Douglas

Aspects of Negro Life: from Slavery Through Reconstruction (copy),
Topeka, Kansas, 1934, birthplace of Aaron Douglas.
 "We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."
Langston Hughes, 1926, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Aaron Douglas Self-portrait, 1958
Those words became the manifesto for the famed Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s in which major talents in the arts coalesced around New York's black community of Harlem to proclaim a new black, urban culture centered on literature, jazz, painting, theater, and most of all, negro pride. In music, names like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton made famous the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, and the Savoy Ballroom. In literature, there was Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The Harlem theater featured such names as Ridgely Torrence, Richard Bruce Nugent, Eulalie Spence, and the critic, James Weldon Johnson. In the visual arts of the Harlem Renaissance (called the "New Negro Movement" at the time) there was Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones, and near the top of anyone's list of important black artists of the time would be the painter/illustrator/muralist, Aaron Douglas.
Aspects of Negro Life: The Idyll of the Deep South, 1934, Aaron Douglas
Sahdjio, 1925, Aaron Douglas
book illustration
The Harlem Renaissance (as it's called today) came largely as a result of the historic, early-20th century black migration from the Jim Crow south to the burgeoning industrial cities of the north--Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, and New York. New York, being the cultural center of the country at the time, naturally attracted blacks involved in the fine arts. Harlem, being the major black conclave within the city, became the focal point of this "New Negro Movement." At the center of this black urban cultural development was poetry and music. Painting came in a distant third, and really didn't have much of an impact until the 1930s when the WPA added a modest amount of federal money to the mix. Aaron Douglas was one of the major beneficiaries of this Depression era program.
Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African
Setting, 1934, Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas was not from New York, or even the South. Far from it, in fact. He was born in 1898, raised in Topeka, Kansas, graduated from high school there, and earned a B.A. from the University of Nebraska. He came to Harlem in 1925. During the 1920s Douglas made a living doing book jackets and illustrations (above, right) for the thriving publishing enterprises featuring black poetry and novels. His work is usually considered Modernist, though with significant African influences. However, Douglas' most important work came through the WPA in 1934 at the Fisk University Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). There he painted a series of four murals on the theme, Aspects of Negro Life (above, top, and bottom, left).

Window Cleaning, 1935, Aaron Douglas
Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers,
1934, Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas died in 1979. The central mural in his Aspects of Negro Life (top) has been reproduced as a tribute to Topeka's most famous artist. Recently, one of his illustrations Prodigal Son (below, right), from 1927, has been chosen to be included in the Modern Masters series of stamps. Before he died Aaron Douglas was dubbed "Father of African American arts," a tribute he modestly dismissed: "Do not call me the Father of African American Arts, for I am just a son of Africa, and paint for what inspires me."

Prodigal Son, 1927, Aaron Douglas,
Modern Masters stamp series.


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