A beacon of the Harlem Renaissance

Painter Aaron Douglas has been called 'the father of black American art.' His work exudes hope and optimism.

Aaron Douglas's paintings and illustrations pulsate with the energy and optimism of the Harlem Renaissance, that extraordinary flowering of African-American culture that burst forth in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. While he was not the first black artist to find inspiration in his African heritage, he was the first to consistently blend African imagery with contemporary subject matter and in modernist forms. Douglas, who has been called "the father of black American art," became the premier visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance.

Today, his is not as familiar a name as other luminaries from that era, such as Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, or Zora Neale Hurston. But the organizers of "Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist," a retrospective exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, hope to bring the artist and his work to a wider audience.

The exhibition is the first major retrospective since the artist's death in 1979 and brings together nearly 100 works that span much of his distinguished career.

The exhibition is something of a homecoming for Douglas, who was born in 1899 in Topeka, Kan. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1922, where he was the star of the fine arts department. For two years afterward, he taught art in Kansas City, Mo.

In 1924, Douglas was introduced to Charles Johnson, the founder and editor of Opportunity, the official journal of the National Urban League. Johnson needed illustrators for his magazine and urged Douglas to move east. He moved to New York the next year. "You just watch," he wrote to Alta Sawyer, his future wife. "Things are going to break and break fast."

And break they did. No sooner did Douglas arrive in New York than he connected with central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including the scholar-editor W.E.B. Du Bois and writer-philosopher Alain Locke. Within months he was contributing illustrations and cover art to leading black publications, including Opportunity and the NAACP publication, The Crisis, edited by Du Bois.

An early example of Douglas's graphic style is the 1926 cover he produced for Fire!!, an ambitious, single-issue journal of black art and literature. It evokes the magazine's incendiary tone abstractly through the use of bold areas of red and black. He incorporates Art Deco design elements and typography with the image of a sphinx (in the 1920s, Egypt stood for Africa), and introduces what became one of his signature elements: slanted, upward sloping eyes, reminiscent of Dan sculpture from the Ivory Coast.

In his art, Douglas applied African and Egyptian motifs to images of everyday African-American life at a time when black Americans rarely embraced their ancestry. He also used his knowledge of a range of white American and European art to inform his aesthetic. Well read and intellectually curious, he paid attention to such diverse talents as the American artists Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Sheeler, and the European painters Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, and Robert Delaunay. Art Deco, graphic design, Greek vase painting, and jazz were also artistic touchstones throughout his career.

Douglas's career culminated in a number of large-scale mural projects. A highlight of the Spencer exhibition is the four-panel series he painted for the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). One of the studies for the mural, "Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South," shown above, reflects Douglas's dictum to paint "the depths of the souls of our people" and incorporates many of his recurring themes, including black agricultural labor, the contributions of African-Americans to American music and dance, and the tragedy of injustices.

The star and ray of light at the upper left, found in many of his works, are typical of Douglas's sense of hope and optimism. They also refer to the Underground Railroad's directive to "follow the north star."

The concentric circles radiating from the center foreground simultaneously highlight individual portions of the narrative and create connections among its different parts. They also acknowledge the symbolic resonance of each aspect of African-American life in the South and act as visual echoes tying past to present akin to those found in spiritual song.

One of the things that makes Douglas important is that he never backed away from addressing tough subjects – such as slavery and lynching – in his paintings, notes Susan Earle, the exhibition's curator. "But," she adds, "he managed to convey them in a way that had a spirit and sense of optimism, despite the sadness of the subject matter."

Douglas's legacy goes far beyond his body of art. For more than 25 years he taught art and art history to several generations of black students at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

"There are many artists today inspired by Douglas," Ms. Earle says. "His work is unparalleled."

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