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The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The show is not only gorgeous to behold artistically but is also deeply engrossing in terms of its socio-cultural pedagogy.

Archibald J. Motley Jr.’s “Blues,” 1929. Oil on canvas.Credit...Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr./Bridgeman Images, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Archibald J. Motley Jr.’s “Blues,” 1929. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of: Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr./Bridgeman Images, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

With more than 160 works of painting, sculpture, photography, film, and ephemera installed across manageably sized galleries on the second floor of The Met, the exhibition explores the new Black cities that took shape from the 1920s to the 1940s in New York City’s Harlem (as well as Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia) as the first decades of the Great Migration brought millions of African Americans out of the segregated rural South. Taken from both its own holdings but also borrowed from a number of prestigious Black cultural and educational institutions and private collections, the show is not only gorgeous to behold artistically but is also deeply engrossing in terms of its socio-cultural pedagogy. The expansion of the exhibition’s scope to include within its title ‘Transatlantic Modernism’ should make this show particularly accessible to European viewers.

 

What might have been a daunting prospect both in terms of volume and aesthetic heft, the exhibition is well organized into gallery-grouped subsets such as ‘Everyday Life in the New Black Cities’, ‘Portraiture and the Modern Black Subject’, ‘The Negro Artist Abroad’, ‘Nightlife’ and – in its final gallery as a segue to the political engagement that characterized the 1950s and ‘60’s – ‘Artist As Activist’. 


William Henry Johnson, “Street Life, Harlem,” circa 1939-1940. Image courtesy of The New York Times via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
William Henry Johnson, “Street Life, Harlem,” circa 1939-1940. Image courtesy of The New York Times via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well-known American greats such as William H. Johnston (1901-1970), Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) are interspersed, as the thematics of the show demand, with stunning examples of works less often shown by painters such as Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891-1981) and Malvin Gray Johnson (1896-1934). Photographic portraits of the local community by James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) anchor the narrative. 

 

These visual arts producers are equally well blended with the leading social, political and literary producers of the day with portraits of such towering figures as philosopher Alain Locke (1885-1954), and the writers Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Langston Hughes (1901-1967) and James Baldwin (1924-1987). A number of these protagonists were Queer, and this aspect of the scene is powerfully examined in a searching essay in the catalogue which accompanies the show.


James Van Der Zee, “Tea Time at Madam C.J. Walker’s Beauty Salon,” 1929, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
James Van Der Zee, “Tea Time at Madam C.J. Walker’s Beauty Salon,” 1929, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 Several vintage black and white film clips about midway through the show are helpfully suspended on screens above an open gallery floor giving visitors a welcome opportunity to sit and delight in performances from Black opera, dance and musical cabaret by luminaries such as Josephine Baker (1906-1975) and Cab Calloway (1907-1994). The sheer historic span of the lifetimes of so many of these figures in terms of hardships endured and changes seen gave this viewer painful pause.


Installation view of the exhibition. Image courtesy of The Guardian and Anna-Marie Kellan.
Installation view of the exhibition. Image courtesy of The Guardian and Anna-Marie Kellan.

Not everything in the show was as strong as the best work. The chapel-like room of seven large scale Aaron Douglas biblical themes produced between 1934 and 1944 did not hold my attention much beyond the first couple, and some of the still lives shown in the “A Language of Artistic Freedom” gallery seemed like token nods to underscore the versatility of artists who specialized and excelled more than well enough in other genres.

 

The back story to this show as a rejoinder to The Met’s much maligned “Harlem on My Mind’ of 1969 is an interesting but problematic one and too complex to treat briefly here. A dip into some of the reviews available online by critics who have covered the show, however, will be well worth your time in terms of grasping the full ambition and historical significance of this rich exhibition.


The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until 28th July, 2024.

 

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