Review: ‘Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism’ at the Met

The halls of a museum exhibition
An installation view of ‘The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism’ at the Met. Courtesy The Met, Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen

Among New York neighborhoods, Harlem has long stood out for its immense impact on culture. Early in the Twentieth Century, it emerged as an epicenter of music, art, theater, literature and dining—the result of the mass exodus of millions of Black Americans from diverse backgrounds who left the rural south to settle in the urban north. More than 175,000 people came to Harlem, including artists, writers, musicians and great thinkers who would pave the way for the Harlem Renaissance’s most recognizable names: W.E.B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker, Augusta Savage, Cab Calloway and many more.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently opened show, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” pays tribute to it all with an exhibition featuring over 160 artworks by Black artists from the 1920s through the 1940s, in what is the first survey of the subject in the city since 1987.

The exhibition is divided into sections that highlight everything from activism to nightlife, featuring what the Met calls “the first African American-led movement of international modern art,” and showcasing the work of artists like Charles Alston, Aaron Douglas, Meta Warrick Fuller, William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, Winold Reiss, Augusta Savage, James Van Der Zee and Laura Wheeler Waring. Also shown are portrayals of African diasporan subjects as rendered by Matisse, Munch, Picasso and a handful of others.

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The start of “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” recognizes writer and philosophy professor Alain Leroy Locke, whose 1925 book of cultural criticism, The New Negro, set forth principles of “a new vision of opportunity” for African Americans and helped shape the Harlem Renaissance and, with it, American culture as a whole. There’s a portrait of the writer by Winold Reiss, alongside a copy of his book, which includes the essay ‘The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” that invited black artists to embrace African aesthetics. There are also portraits of thinkers like Zora Neale Hurston, presented in a portrait by Aaron Douglas.

A painting of people eating outdoors under umbrellas
Archibald J. Motley, Jr., ‘The Picnic,’ 1936, Oil on canvas. Juan Trujillo / HowardUniversityGalleryofArt,Washington,D.C.

The section titled “Everyday Life in the New Black Cities” is full of stunning paintings, including Hale Woodruff’s 1930 The Card Players, depicting a cubist-inspired scene of pool players in a dark bar and Pool Parlor, a 1942 painting by Jacob Lawerence—the first example of the artist’s work to be included in the Met’s permanent collection.

Overall, the exhibition is wide-ranging and thoughtful in both its curation and presentation. Photo highlights include the James Van Der Zee photo Couple, Harlem, from 1932, with its stylish couple in fur coats posing with their Cadillac on a street lined with brownstone buildings.

A black and white vintage photo of two people in fur coats posing next to a 1930s style car
James Van Der Zee, ‘Couple, Harlem,’ 1932, printed later, Gelatin silver print. James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Donna Van Der Zee, 2021

Women are highlighted throughout the show, which is refreshing. In a section devoted to “Portraiture and the Modern Black Subject,” a 1943 portrait by William H. Johnson called Woman in Blue depicts a woman staring confidently into the painter’s gaze—it looks as if she’s wearing a uniform, signaling the strength of the working woman. There are pieces by women artists, including Laura Wheeler Waring’s Yellow Roses on view, and plenty of representation: a photo of acclaimed singer Josephine Baker taken in 1925 by Adolph de Meyer shows her in all her glamorous glory.

A major highlight of the exhibit is the room of paintings by Aaron Douglas, who created monochromatic, graphic images of silhouettes of African Americans throughout history real and imagined. Some of the most exciting sections are the galleries devoted to the Black nightlife that came to define Harlem and the “Artist as Activist” section, which explores the civic activism at the core of the Harlem Renaissance. William H. Johnson’s Moon Over Harlem, which depicts police brutality after a race-related riot in August of 1943, is particularly moving.

A stylized collage of people on a street under an orange moon
William Henry Johnson, ‘Moon over Harlem,’ 1944, Oil on plywood. Smithsonian American Art Museum

The exhibition ends with a tribute to Harlem: the 15-foot-long 1970 mural The Block by artist Romare Bearden. It depicts a block of mid-century buildings in the NYC neighborhood, including the block where Bearden, a member of the Harlem Artists Guide, had his art studio on 125th Street. He worked in the same building as artist Jacob Lawrence and poet Claude McKay, and his depiction takes the viewer back to old New York, capturing its bustling essence in a lively street that continues to be a hub of African American cultural life.

A Harlem Renaissance exhibition at the Met was arguably long overdue, but don’t let that stop you from checking it out now. One show can’t cover the wide breadth of a decades-long art movement but “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” does much to capture its impact and legacy. It’s a strong introduction to what should be a lifelong journey into the lives of these influential artists and luminaries.

A museum exhibition dominated by painted portraits
Portraits are a major focus of ‘The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism.’ Courtesy The Met, Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” is on view through July 28.

The Met Pays Tribute to New York’s Great Black Artists

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