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Integrating modernism: The migration paintings of Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare BeardenNora Niedzielski-Eichner
For many participating in and observing the migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the middle of the twentieth century, it seemed as if the migrants were moving from the past into the future, or at least into the present. It seemed as if they were entering the modem era, were becoming modem, were becoming modernists, were creating and recreating what modem was and meant, what it looked and sounded like. The migration has been a decision, a journey, a story, a metaphor, a means by which artists and authors of many generations have grappled with what, exactly, modernity and modernism mean for African Americans. Three of the most critically acclaimed works of African-American art, Aaron Douglas's Aspects of Negro Life (1934), Jacob Lawrence's The Migration of the Negro (1940-41) and Romare Bearden's Projections (1964) take shape from their approach to this migration. This dissertation analyzes the perspectives offered by each series on the meaning and consequences of the migration, seeking to understand what the style chosen by each artist reveals about the migration of African Americans into the American art world in the twentieth century. At its most basic, the migration to the North was about integration, about the quest to hold an equal place in the modem world. For artists, integrating the art world meant both a practical quest for access to education and exhibitions and an intellectual quest for styles that expressed multiple heritages without erasing any of them. This dissertation will focus on these dual challenges, situating Aspects of Negro Life, The Migration of the Negro, and Projections in the modernist art world of New York City, the celebrated endpoint of so many migrations. In all, more than six million African Americans left the South between 1916 and 1970, and in the process of this migration they reshaped both the American city and African-American culture. Black intellectuals and artists were aware of the significance of this migration from its beginning, and literary historian Farah Griffin has argued that the migration narrative "emerges as one of the twentieth century's dominant forms of African-American cultural production." It is unsurprising, then, that the theme of migration would also be taken up by visual artists, or that it would prove an ideal form through which Douglas, Lawrence, and Bearden could address the relationship between African Americans and modernity and modernism. The first chapter explicates the particular history of African-American life told by Aspects of Negro Life, as well as the kind of future it prophesies. Douglas's series tackles some of the same challenges faced by white muralists in the 1930s--how to tell a narrative about the United States' historical character that both recognizes its flaws and celebrates its virtues--with the additional burdens of narrating a history that was largely oppressive and out of his people's control. Douglas adopted a Moderne style and made careful narrative selections in order to minimize the more than two centuries of slavery endured by African Americans while increasing the viewer's focus on African Americans' great mythologized Egyptian past and their potential power in the new urban industrial society of the United States. The Egypt-inspired Moderne of Aspects of Negro Life allows the series to make a strong statement advocating that African Americans embrace modernity and modernism as the route to a future that is worthy of their ancient past, perhaps even a Communist future of equality between black and white workers. In chapter two, I explored how the style and narrative of The Migration of the Negro developed at the intersection of two discourses, one addressing the role of the folk in American arts and one debating the best ways to activate the political power represented by the growing numbers of African Americans living in the North. Interest in folk art spanned the white and black artistic communities, and sprang in part from the belief of critics like Holger Cahill and Alain Locke that folk art could be a vital source of formal inspiration for modern artists. Lawrence may be the artist who most successfully followed through on that theory, in part because it meshed well with his aspirations to speak for the black working class with which he identified. In part through the contrast with Richard Wright's migration narrative, Twelve Million Black Voices --which also sought to speak from and to the black working class, but from a sociological and Marxist position that was very critical of that class--I argued for The Migration of the Negro's construction of self-directed and politically aware migrants transforming themselves into struggling but rising workers and citizens. Lawrence's characterization of both rural Southern black culture and migrant-driven urban black culture are in tune with the early stirrings of mass movements for civil rights represented in 1941 by the first March on Washington Movement. The second, more famous, March on Washington in 1963 was the impetus for Projections, the sertes by Romare Bearden analyzed in the third chapter. The chapter explores Bearden's struggle to make art that he felt had both formal and social value, a struggle he shared with many other artists of the period. Projections joined a number of other works in the period that looked back to the Dada movement for strategies and techniques to disrupt the sterile formalism characteristic of much abstract painting in the early 1960s. Bearden, however, also remained deeply invested in certain formalist values, and I argue that his familiarity with New Criticism helped him develop a style which used form to give additional meaning to the narrative content of his photostats. Bearden's interest in literary criticism extended well beyond New Criticism, and the chapter also explores Bearden's interest in ritual and myth criticism, an interest he shared with other artists who were anxious about the deterioration of the communal in urban industrial societies. Projections strives to demonstrate Bearden's conviction that art about black experiences speaks as universally as any art proclaimed able to do so by white artists or critics.
Communication and the arts; Social sciences; Douglas, Aaron; Bearden, Romare; Lawrence, Jacob; Modernism; Migration; African-American; Paintings; Black studies; American history; Art history; 0337:American history; 0325:Black studies; 0377:Art history
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