Youth and Beauty: African Americans As Subject Matter
Building on Artistic Legacy
As I walk through the first gallery of Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, I am instantly reminded of the famed Howard University Professor Alain Locke, who urged African American artists during the 1920’s to develop a new form of “Negro Art”. Up until this time period, works by African American artists were not always representational of their own cultural experience. Many works were landscapes, still-life or displayed religious themes. For instance, American born artist Henry O. Tanner became noted for his paintings exploring religious themes during the early 1900’s. Artists such as Robert Duncanson and Edward Bannister painted landscapes, and Charles Porter was a still life painter. These artists rar!
ely used African Americans as their predominate themes. When images were used in the early 1900’s, they were often stereotypical. European and American artists often depicted African Americans in a grotesque and cartoonish manner.
Changing the Image
But as the 1920’s roared upon the scene, painting themes began to change for African Americans. Alain Locke, recognized for ushering in the Harlem Renaissance and the era of the New Negro, urged artists to look to their heritage when creating their art. In particular, Locke recommended artists look to the African continent for inspiration. Locke was witnessing the huge impact African art was making on European artists such as Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse. Thus, he urged his fellow brethren to look to their heritage as well, when creating works of art. One of the many artists to heed this call was Aaron Douglas, who is displayed prominently in Youth and Beauty. The abstract beauty of African art is consistently shown in Douglas’ works. The images are angular and abstract as they move across the paper in Congo, Charleston and Study for God’s Trombones. The faces of the figures are mask like-following the great Africa!
Winold Reiss (American, 1886–1953). Black Prophet, 1925. Pastel on Whatman board, 30 x 22 in. (76.2 x 55.9 cm). Private collection. © The Reiss Trust
Two remarkable works in the exhibit are Sari Price Patton and Black Prophet both by Winold Reiss. Although not an African American artist, it is clear the era of the New Negro was influential on his subject matter and style. Locke, as well as other artists and academics were demanding the elimination of caricatures and stereotypical images of African American in art. Black Prophet is a regal painting displaying strong contrasts of color between the chocolate skin tone and the regal draping of the white robe worn by the Black Prophet. Even though the Black Prophet is far from being an abstract work, it is fitting that it is located near the Aaron Douglas works, since Douglas was a pupil of Winold Reiss.
It is difficult not to compare the works of Winold Reiss to the painting Over the Mountain by Thomas Hart Benton. It is large in scale containing several images of African Americans. Yet, when comparing the Benton images to the sensitive portrayal of the Black Prophet, it is clear the Benton images border on caricature. The men are large and muscular with exaggerated facial figures. Other captivating works on display are Martinique Woman by Malvinia Hoffman and Negro Head by John Steuart Curry. Martinique Woman is a striking portrait head, neatly coiffed and sculpted in black marble. Malvinia Hoffman produced the work after traveling to Africa.
Upon viewing this work, visit our African Art Galleries where one can see a female face mask with elaborate hairstyling created by the Baule people. It is immediately clear the impact of African Art on Martinique Woman. What a wonderful conversation between our permanent collection and this special exhibition.
Youth and Beauty is a visual treat and evident of the evolving trend in the 1920’s to depict African Americans, and does so in a humane and sensitive manner.
-- Helen Forbes Fields
Trustee, Cleveland Museum of Art, Chair of Collections Committee