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Rhapsodies in Black Art of the Harlem Renaissance An Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington April i—June 22, 1998. Reviewed by Dale Volberg Reed, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is the coauthor, with John Shelton Reed, of ¡001 Things Everyone ShouldKnow about the South. The cultural life of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s was largely the creation of southern expatriates. Think only of the writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson; the musicians Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong , and Eubie Blake; and the painters William H.Johnson, Malvin GrayJohnson , and Archibald Modeyjr. (And note, by the way, the relative obscurity of the visual artists today.) Odiers, not born in the South, established lasting ties with die region, like the painter Aaron Douglas, who spent his life at Fisk University. For these artists, the South was often their subject, and even when it wasn't it was likely to be lurking somewhere in the background. Rhapsodies in Black opened last summer at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank and will be coming to Washington's Corcoran Gallery throughJune 1998. The brainchild of Richard J. Powell of Duke University and Londoner David A. Bailey, the exhibit offers a gracious plenty ofworks by and about African Americans in the heyday of modernism: many artists, and several works by each, including three of Aaron Douglas's giant, pastel, visionary cubist paintings and the entire "Toussaint L'Ouverture" series by Jacob Lawrence. (It is so rewarding to see this whole that I won't even argue about why I would have preferred Lawrence's "Migration" series. Besides, part of the fun of this show is second-guessing the curators.) The generous size of the exhibition allows for provocative juxtapositions and for contrasts between high and low culture, black and white artists , local and global significance—all calculated, of course. (My p.c. antennae were quivering, but rarely overloaded.) The wealth of photography includes studio portraits by Richard S. Roberts (a black commercial photographer from Columbia); idealized scenes of black life in South Carolina, more still-life than documentary, by Doris Ullman (a white woman); documentary photos of New York life byJames VanDerZee (black) and WaIkReviews 137 er Evans (white); and some of Carl Van Vechten's ultra-high-style portraits of celebrities. The show also includes some arresting motion-picture footage, including performances byJosephine Baker and Paul Robeson, and Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates, the first nationally distributed African American feature film. Don't miss Jean Renoir's off-the-wall silent science-fiction piece, Sur un airde Charleston (1927 —The beginning of his love affair with "the South"?). I trust the early "music videos" running in the Hayward's café last summer—Ellington, Armstrong , Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's step-dance, Bessie Smith's only filmed performance —will accompany the exhibit to its other locations. Even the white musicians in black tie doing their pallid, strained versions of stomps and rags have a certain period charm. Try to catch this show in Washington, or at least pick up its sumptuous catalog. Ifyou want, try viewing this as simply an examination ofa little-known species of modernism; but chances are you'll wind up having a good, soudiern wallow in ambivalent, ambiguous feelings about this ambivalent, ambiguous, southernrooted art. 138 Reviews ...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 137-138
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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