The Harlem Renaissance brought together and developed a stunning display of creativity.
The movement encompassed all forms of visual art and music – from Aaron Douglas to Billy Holiday.
The artists and musicians of this period used color and sound to inspire each other.
And at the intersection of paint brush and piano key lies a rich body of work that Telfair Museums explores in a new exhibit.
Artist, historian and curator Dr. Margaret Rose Vendryes talked about images of guitar players, jazz singers and other musical subjects on display in The Visual Blues through May 3rd at the Jepson Center.
“The black musician persists,” Vendryes says. “It’s an image that speaks to us. But the language has changed.”
In this 53-minute talk, Vendryes walks us briefly through the illustrious history of African-American art to place the displayed works in context.
She says that black artists in the United States always have struggled with a tension between their own inner sensibilities and what art consumers expect of them.
“There’s an expectation for a particular feeling, a particular treatment of the African-American form, of representations of the African-American experience,” she says. “And artists have continually tried to find a way to make that come forward using their own voice.”
She gives several examples. In one, Tutankhamen, better known as King Tut, looms large in a 1927 pamphlet drawn by Charles Dawson.
He created the advertisement for the country’s first-ever museum exhibit of African art.
Egypt was seen as a more “civilized” representation of Africa than sub-Saharan figures.
(The flier also references jazz.)
In another example, she points to the work of expressionist painter Henry Tanner.
Tanner moved to Paris from Philadelphia and made only two paintings about African-American life during his career.
(One of them depicts a guitar player.)
But Tanner became an oracle in Paris.
“Those African-American artists who could get over there, would go on a pilgrimage to visit Tanner,” she says. “And Tanner would say to them, ‘Whatever you do, don’t be a Negro artist. If you can help it, just be an artist.’”
These are topics that resonate with us still today.
Vendryes also talks about stereotypes in art like minstrels, contemporary artists like Kara Walker and her own art work dealing with divas like Donna Summer.
I think the audience sounded surprised to learn about Isabel Washington’s connection to our city. She was a Cotton Club dancer who married Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. But she was born in Savannah.
And what do all of these things have in common?
The exhibit’s topic, of course. And that’s music.
“Black music is relevant to all rites of passage,” Vendryes says. “We have found a way to incorporate music into everything that happens to us.”
This talk provides a great starting point for understanding The Visual Blues.
But you’ll want to see it for yourself after this engaging and enlightening lecture.
Perhaps you can even podcast some Lady Day, Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway on the way down to Telfair Square.