Harlem Renaissance's Global Impact

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Outside, the city's sidewalks shimmer from the late summer temperatures. Walk inside a new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), "Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance," and you feel a different kind of heat: The startling collection of paintings, sculpture, music, and literature evokes the passion of a pivotal period in this country's cultural development.

Between the two world wars, the African-American art arena exploded with talents - Louis Armstrong, W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, and Bessie Smith, to name a few. Their accomplishments defined both black and white popular culture for decades to come, particularly in music and literature. Harlem was the heartbeat of the movement, but as the show demonstrates, its impact was felt around the world.

Why look back at this seminal period now? Because the first artistic flowering of black America is particularly resonant today, according to LACMA director Graham Beal. "We're at a moment when culture is increasingly global," he says, not separatist.

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He maintains that minority artists in America have gone through various evolutions of consciousness. "Now is the time for emphasizing connections rather than separations" - a theme, he explains, that runs through the show.

The exhibition itself was organized by the Hayward Gallery in London, in collaboration with the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. LACMA coordinating curator Howard Fox comments that "Harlem was not just a place; it was a state of mind," one that permeated the time.

Some of the show's surprises are evidence of this deeper influence - a compelling portrait, "Harlem Girl I," by a white German artist, Winold Reiss; and photographs by prominent white American artists Doris Ullman and Walker Evans. They suggest a provocative time in the international art world when an interest in so-called "primitive" images, in particular all things North African (launched by the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb), was fueling an artistic exchange of artists and intellectuals.

The entry hall is framed by five large Aaron Douglas canvases, a suite of larger-than-life mural-style paintings that depict "Aspects of Negro Life." Two loops of galleries are full of works that reveal a daily African-American life of normalcy and dignity.

There are also caricatures of black performers, but with a significantly different intention than many of the "Amos 'n' Andy"-type stereotypes of the day. "These images don't demean," observes curator Fox. "Rather, they celebrate and include all the performers of the period."

Also featured: rare films by early black filmmakers and a music listening room. One entire gallery celebrates Haiti, the first independent black nation in the Americas, and includes the early work of Jacob Lawrence. At once a look back and forward, Lawrence's own words reflect the show's focus on interconnectedness: "I choose Haiti as my theme, because of the similarity of the Haitian's fight for economic freedom with that of the Negro in the United States."

* At LACMA through Oct. 19. Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is: goodaleg@csps.com

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