On Friday, Jan. 18, 2008, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts will open Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, the first nationally touring retrospective devoted to the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Featuring nearly 90 paintings, murals, book and magazine illustrations by Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), this exhibition is especially significant for Nashville, where Douglas spent the last 30 years of his life as the founding chairman of the art department at historically black Fisk University. The celebrated Fisk Jubilee Singers will perform at 7 p.m. the night of the public opening. On view through April 13, the exhibition also features several works by Douglas’ contemporaries and students.
In conjunction with Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, the Frist Center has organized Fisk University’s Art Faculty: The Legacy of Aaron Douglas on view Friday, Jan. 11 through
May 11, 2008, in the Conte Community Artists Gallery. With works by current and former members of Fisk University’s art department, the exhibition focuses on Douglas’ impact on the local art community.
“The Frist Center is honored to bring this important exhibition to Nashville and to provide an opportunity to deepen our awareness and appreciation of one of America’s most important artists who lived in our own community,” says Frist Center Executive Director Susan H. Edwards, Ph.D. “We are particularly thrilled to have the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform here as a part of our opening weekend. This exhibition promises to be a broad celebration of Aaron Douglas, his legacy at Fisk and his role in modern American art.”
Throughout his career, Douglas projected a dignified voice of both opposition and aspiration through his powerful imagery. In a distinct style based on silhouetted figures and fractured space, he created images that evoke the harsh realities of African American life as well as hopes for a better future.
Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez notes, “Like other participants in the Harlem Renaissance and adherents to the notion of ‘the New Negro,’ Aaron Douglas wanted to embrace the culture and heritage—both good and bad—that are unique to African Americans. Douglas captured the spirit of the times when he wrote to his friend, poet Langston Hughes, ‘let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it.’”
A native of Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1922. In 1925, he moved to Harlem to join the cultural flourishing that has been called the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. The young artists, writers, dancers and musicians he met there believed creative expression could help define a unique racial identity and simultaneously bridge the divide between black and white communities.
Almost immediately after his arrival, Douglas became involved in Harlem’s thriving literary scene and was asked to contribute to various projects, including Alain Locke’s influential anthology The New Negro. He also created bold illustrations and cover designs for both Opportunity and Crisis, civil rights magazines published by the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P., respectively. Douglas collaborated with notable Harlem Renaissance writers including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay, to create book jacket designs as well. In 1926, with the Harlem Renaissance movement in full swing, Douglas, along with Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston, founded Fire!! A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists.
The highly regarded illustrator and painter was asked by Fisk University to create a series of murals to adorn the new Cravath Memorial Library (now Cravath Hall) in 1929. Five years later, Douglas was commissioned by the Works Project Administration (WPA) to paint murals for the 135th Street branch of New York’s Public Library. Entitled Aspects of Negro Life, the murals drew heavily on influences of African sculpture, music and dance.
In 1937, Douglas returned to Fisk to teach art where he remained until his retirement in 1966. He died in Nashville in 1979.
During his long and illustrious career, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and utopian vision. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined cubist rhythms and Art-Deco dynamism with traditional African and African American imagery to develop a new visual vocabulary. Douglas’ imaginative and forceful ideas, and his distinctive artistic form, combined to produce the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and made a lasting impact on the history of art and the cultural heritage of the nation.
The exhibition, on view in the Frist Center’s Upper-Level Galleries, begins with two galleries dedicated to the illustrations and cover designs that Douglas created for various literary publications. Highlights include the graphically incisive cover for Fire!! A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists and the eight paintings he made to accompany James Weldon Johnson’s
God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). The popularity of magazines and books and the ease of their dissemination made Douglas’ designs visible to a broad audience, both black and white. These creative partnerships between author and artist also underscore the multi-genre nature of the Harlem Renaissance.
A reading area, complete with samples of Harlem Renaissance music and publications and other reference books, is offered for visitors to learn more about this vibrant time period.
The next two galleries focus on Douglas’ large-scale murals, widely considered to be among his most important work, in which he portrayed subjects from African American history and contemporary life. In addition to the celebrated murals at Fisk University, Douglas was commissioned to create murals for such institutions as Club Ebony in Harlem (1927); the Sherman Hotel in Chicago (1930); the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (1934) and the Texas Centennial Exposition (1936). All of Douglas’ existing major mural projects are represented in this exhibition. Included are “portable” murals, studies for various projects and an artist-made video representing the permanently affixed Fisk and Harlem YMCA murals (1933).
The multiple styles explored by Douglas throughout his career are presented in the next segment of the exhibition. The various paintings and works on paper allow the visitor to compare and contrast the public style for which he is best known—flat, silhouetted figures, a limited color palette and radiating bands of light—with his more naturalistically rendered, private images of close friends and everyday life. The final section explores Douglas’ legacy and influence, with several works from contemporaries and students, including Romare Bearden, Bruce Nugent and Gregory Ridley.