African-American Art That Blossomed In Postwar Paris
Expatriate blacks found respect and success overseas
NEW YORK — I met a lot of people in Paris, I even encountered myself.
- James Baldwin
Oscar Wilde once wrote that good Americans go to Paris when they die. But for seven African-American artists who went to study and live there after World War II, the City of Light meant a new beginning - socially, professionally, and artistically.
Paris had long held allure for African-American artists who found an acceptance there that eluded them in America. Entertainers like Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday, musicians like Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker, and writers like James Baldwin found a second home in Paris and a second lease on their creativity.
For the seven artists featured in an exhibit at the Studio Museum of Harlem, postwar Paris meant freedom from the claustrophobia of McCarthyism and new possibilities. Very few American art schools accepted blacks, and it was difficult to integrate into the mainstream art world. Segregation still existed in some states.
''Paris first offered hope, and then ultimately a validation of their training and vision that was elusive in America,'' says museum director Kinshasha Holman Conwill. To celebrate the work of these artists and explore their relationship to Paris, the New York-based museum has created ''Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965,'' an exhibition that will travel to four other American cities.
The exhibit, the first to explore in-depth the lure of postwar Paris for African-American artists, profiles the work of Edward Clark, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Harold Cousins, Beauford Delaney, Herbert Gentry, Lois Mailou Jones, and Larry Potter. While they made their way to Paris separately over those 20 years, the city offered all of them critical attention, visibility, and an artistic and racial freedom unavailable at home.
''I didn't go to Paris to escape racism,'' says Clark, a compact man with salt-and-pepper hair and a faint New Orleans twang. ''But I got there and discovered racism wasn't a factor. If I'd stayed in Chicago, it would have been a factor and it might have hindered my art.''
Clark, whose work was initially figurative, now works on a large scale to create dynamic abstract canvases dominated by broad strokes of luminous color, evoking landscapes or seascapes. After studying in Chicago, he left for Paris in 1952 to study art under the GI bill, which also brought Gentry and Cousins to Paris as well.
While many in the group knew each other - Clark has work by Gentry hanging in his New York studio - they moved in diverse circles that included Europeans, Africans, and other Americans, white and black. The influences on their art were equally diverse.
''So often with African-American artists, critics talk about them as [a] monolithic [group], but that's just not the case,'' says Valerie Mercer, the museum's curator of collections. ''Our show reveals their diverse and varied influences.''
Delaney, who arrived in Paris in 1953 and died there in 1979, is perhaps the best known of the group. He channeled the influence of Expressionism into abstract canvases and portraits in strong, vibrant colors. His use of short, dense brush strokes gives a richness and intensity to his abstracts and portraits.
Potter, who died in Paris in 1966, has also drawn posthumous attention for French-influenced abstractions that layer panes of light and color. Friends say Potter left America in 1956 because he felt so much of his energy would be consumed by America's race problem that he would not be able to express himself artistically.
Potter arrived in Paris as the American civil rights movement was beginning. Even across the Atlantic, the civil rights battles affected the artists' work, as did Pan-Africanism, which promoted pride in African culture. Many of the artists in this exhibit drew on African elements, often interpreting them through African-influenced European modernist styles such as Cubism.
Gentry drew on the totems of African art and the ideas of a Scandinavian artists' group that espoused the use of strong color to convey subconscious feeling. His powerful works, rendered in vivid color, contain elements of the abstract and the figurative. Paris, he says, influenced him not only because it exposed him to an international art world, but because he ''felt free there.''
''The French have equality in their motto,'' says Clark. ''We have freedom, but it was freedom for some, not others. It's an important difference. In France, if someone was mad at me, it was as an equal, there were no slurs. It was a nationality thing, not a race thing.''
Jones, the oldest exhibitor, echoes Gentry, saying Paris allowed her ''to be shackle-free, to create and be myself.'' Jones first studied in Paris in 1937-38 and now returns annually to produce richly hued landscapes, a departure from earlier works shaped by Cubism and the esthetics of African art.
The other woman in the exhibition, sculptor Chase-Riboud, also evokes African elements in her work, but the attenuated figures she cast in bronze after her 1961 arrival in Paris also owe a strong debt to the Surrealists. Cousins, who studied with a Cubist-Expressionist, sculpted in welded steel and brass, initially producing delicate, linear works that evolved into a heavier, more muscular style.
The critical recognition these artists received in Paris gave them a confidence that would sustain them throughout their careers, and that has helped their works find a place in museums and private collections throughout Europe and the United States.
'Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965' is on display at the Studio Museum of Harlem until June 2. It travels to the Chicago Cultural Center, June 29 to Aug. 29; the New Orleans Museum of Art, Sept. 14 to Nov. 10; the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, Jan. 12 to March 23, 1997; and the Milwaukee Art Museum, April 11 to June 1, 1997