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  • Worcester Art Museum Exhibition Celebrates the Harlem Renaissance

    (WORCESTER, Mass., December 20, 2002) - From sculptures of African masks to painted scenes of everyday life, the diverse work on view in The Harlem Renaissance and Its Legacy at the Worcester Art Museum, Jan. 18-April 13, celebrates the artistic achievements of African Americans in the 20th century.

    In the 1920s, Harlem became a creative hub that encompassed every facet of American culture-literature, visual arts, theatre, music, and dance. The Harlem Renaissance influenced artists in cities across the United States and abroad, producing artwork that captured the triumphs and struggles of the African-American experience. While the Renaissance, fueled by the universal prosperity of the 1920s, lasted little more than a decade, its legacy can be traced through much of the 20th century.

    The Harlem Renaissance and Its Legacy, organized by the Worcester Art Museum, features paintings, sculptures, collages, photographs and illustrated books by prominent African-American artists from the Harlem Renaissance and the decades that followed. Works derive from the Worcester Art Museum's permanent collection, and also from private collections, rarely on public view.

    “This exhibition demonstrates the Worcester Art Museum's commitment to collecting and displaying works by African-American artists,” said Museum Director James A. Welu. “With these beautiful works, rich with vibrant colors, shapes and textures, we hope to offer visitors a dynamic museum experience and perhaps a much broader perspective of what defines American art.”

    The exhibition includes works by Aaron Douglas, the first president of the Harlem Artists Guild and known as the “dean” among his fellow artists; educator and artist Charles Alston, whose post-Impressionist/Cubist style directly influenced his star student, Jacob Lawrence; Lawrence, arguably among the most well-known and praised African-American artists of the 20th century; Lois Mailou Jones, one of the first African-American artists to explore her ancestral roots in art; and many others. A number of themes recurred in their work-everyday life, spirituality, the arts, New York City, and Africa. In the second half of the 20th century, African-American artists also experimented with formal abstraction.

    While there were notable African-American artists prior to the Harlem Renaissance, they found little public support. Because of the prosperity of 1920s, both middle-class African Americans and European Americans became patrons of the arts. A great migration of African Americans from the south to urban centers energized Harlem with a pervading sense of freedom and expression. The culture of the Harlem Renaissance fostered friendships and collaborations among artists of many disciplines. A wide circle of performers, poets, playwrights and painters socialized and lent support to one another. Jazz diffused popular music, and writers and poets such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson thrived.

    Aaron Douglas, who earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1922, was pre-eminent among his colleagues of the Harlem Renaissance. He was creator and first president of the Harlem Artists Guild. His illustrations from the 1925 groundbreaking literary work The New Negro, by Dr. Alain Locke, and the 1927 publication God's Trombones, a compilation of sermons in verse by James Weldon Johnson, are included in this exhibition.

    Charles Alston's illustrious career spanned 50 years as an educator, illustrator, muralist, sculptor and painter. He earned bachelor and master degrees in fine art from Columbia University. He was the first African-American supervisor of the Works Progress Administration, directing New York's Federal Art Project and painting the mural for New York City's Harlem Hospital. His canvases Family, 1950, and Blues Singer #4, 1955, as well as an untitled work of abstraction, are included in the Worcester Art Museum exhibition, representing the diversity of his work.

    Lois Mailou Jones and Richmond Barthé were two of the earliest African-American artists to describe their work as influenced by African art. Jones' Les Fetiches, 1938, included in the exhibition, is one of the earliest depictions of African masks in African-American art. Barthe sculpted busts of African-American subjects in stone and bronze, which had never been done before. His bronze sculptures Feral Benga, 1935, and Stevedore, 1937, are on display in The Harlem Renaissance and Its Legacy.

    Jacob Lawrence was most famous for his narrative series of paintings depicting African-American historical figures and topics, including the Harriet Tubman Series and The Migration Series. Using Cubist and Expressionist styles, Lawrence also painted scenes from everyday life. The Checker Players, 1947, Life, Death, and the Resurrection, 1955, and They Live in Fire Traps, 1943 are among his works in the Worcester Art Museum exhibition.

    The Harlem Renaissance movement suffered with the stock market crash of 1929 and the nation's fall into the Great Depression. However, African-American artists did not lose ground. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, implemented in 1935, provided a less restrictive environment for the artists to address human and social conditions, politics, and injustice in their work. They experimented more freely with mixed media, abstract art, cubism and social realism. At the same time, artists of the WPA united to form the Harlem Artists Guild, which became a model for community art centers around the country providing both studio and exhibition space. In the 1940s, commercial galleries began to support African-American artists and scholarly fellowships were extended. Responding to the Civil Rights Movement, some artists focused on current events in their painting and photography. African-American artists also delved into formal, mixed media abstraction. Support for these artists surged. Galleries opened exclusively for the exhibition of works by African-American artists, and historically African-American colleges and universities established art departments. In 1971, the Whitney Museum in New York presented an exhibition entitled Contemporary Black Artists, opening the door for exhibitions of African-American art at other major museums.

    “By exhibiting works not only from the Harlem Renaissance, but also through the Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement, and recent history, we demonstrate how the Harlem Renaissance influenced later artists and the how support for these artists began to grow,” said exhibition curator, Jordan Love. Love, a member of the Curatorial Department at the Worcester Art Museum, collaborated with David Brigham, former director of collections and exhibitions, to organize this show.

    In conjunction with the exhibition The Harlem Renaissance and Its Legacy, the Worcester Art Museum presents a series of related programs and events, including a Black History Month Celebration and Lecture on Feb. 2; a guest lecture on The New Negresse on March 13; Jazz Playroom: A Harlem Renaissance Family Day on March 27; and a special performance of God's Trombones on April 13.

    The Harlem Renaissance and Its Legacy is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and supported by the Suzanne H. Arnold Foundation. Additional generous support provided by the Alturas Foundation, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and 90.9 WBUR.

    Museum Background

    A cultural jewel of New England, the Worcester Art Museum first opened to the public in 1898. Its exceptional 35,000-piece collection of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, photography, prints and drawings is displayed in 36 galleries and spans 5,000 years of art and culture, ranging from Egyptian antiquities and Roman mosaics to Impressionist paintings and contemporary art. Its extensive four-season studio arts program enrolls 6,000 adult and youth students each year. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (sponsored by Commerce Bank), and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and full-time college students with current ID, and FREE for Members and all youth 17 and under. Admission is also FREE for everyone on Saturday mornings, 10 a.m.-noon (sponsored by The TJX Companies and Massachusetts Electric Company). The Museum is located at 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, Mass., easily accessible from the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90), Route 290 and Route 9. Expanded parking is available near entrances on Salisbury, Lancaster and Tuckerman streets. For more information, call (508) 799-4406.