The Harlem Renaissance, originally called the New Negro movement, was primarily a literary and intellectual flowering which fostered a new cultural identity among black Americans in the 1920s and 1930s.
Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist, the current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), reveals not only the work of one black American artist but also the existence of a larger, rich and relatively unreported seam in the history of black 20th century art.
African American artists working in the first two decades of the 20th century had virtually no knowledge of indigenous African forms of art, created by their ancestors before the slave trade brought them to the New World. ‘I never had any desire to paint anything about Africa,’ wrote one such artist, Palmer Hayden. ‘I painted what Negroes, colored people, us Americans do.... we’re a brand new race, raised and manufactured in the US.’
But there was one place where avant-garde artists, intellectuals on the watch for exciting new trends, musicians, socialites and designers did value indigenous African art. That place was Paris.
In 1925, La Revue Negre, starring Josephine Baker wearing little but a large pink feather, burst like a bomb into the mid-deco-decade social and artistic Paris scene. But Baker’s astounding entrance on to the Paris stage, which reverberated like jungle drums down the boulevards, was the high note of a more gradual process that had been taking place for nearly two decades. The Parisian love of l’Art negre, in fact went back much further, to the very first years of the 20th century. By 1906 a handful of artists including Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck were already hotly debating who had first discovered African art.
Brancusi Studio, Atelier du 11 impasse Ronsin, Paris, circa 1929. Princesse X, 1915–1916; L'Oiseau dans l'espace, bronze poli, 1927; Leda, 1926; Colonnes sans fin I à III, 1925, 1926 and c. 1928; Plante exotique, 1923–1924. Photo © Centre Pompidou, NMAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.
Both Vlaminck and Derain claimed to have seen carved works in around 1904 in a cafe in Argenteuil, while the future African art dealer Paul Guillaume said he had found his first African sculpture at about the same time, dumped in the corner of an automobile garage that traded in colonial rubber supplies for tyres. For a rapidly growing band of artistic enthusiasts, which by 1907 included Brancusi, Picasso, Braque and Léger, and socialites and cultural promoters such as Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau, and others who would later play a part in the Surrealist movement, there were finds to be had in the flea markets, at Au Vieux Rouet, a jumbled cave of art run by Ernest Heymann, and at Joseph Brummer’s small eponymous gallery on the Boulevard Raspail, another trove of curios, l’art negre and paintings by the self-taught painter Henri Rousseau.
Before the First World War, the only American who seemed to have any idea about the remote and rich cultural heritage of the sub-Sahara was Alfred Stieglitz. In 1914, he put on a show at his 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue entitled African Sculpture with the less-than-flattering subtitle Sanctuary In Wood by African Savages, and in doing so he began to create an avant-garde and highly influential collecting group in New York.
In Paris, African American artists found a city obsessed by jazz and by black culture generally
The First World War eventually saw 164,000 black Africans serving under the French flag. In their luggage they brought with them to France the Cake Walk dance, jazz, and what was described at the time as ‘negritude’.
Meanwhile, back in America, African American artists were almost completely oblivious of their true cultural heritage. They were American, after all. America had never had an African colony, unlike France; the only hope of encountering the indigenous art of their ethnic origins for an African American artist was by going to Paris. And, thanks to the Harlem Renaissance, some of them did, often on scholarships provided by the Harmon, the Carnegie and the Guggenheim Foundations.
Archibald Motley, Palmer Hayden, Nancy Prophet, Augusta Savage and other African American artists found a city obsessed by jazz and by black culture generally. Jazz clubs such as Le Grand Duc, Chez Florence, and Bricktop were considered the height of social chic, and the by now numerous avant-garde artists were collecting and incorporating African indigenous sculpture into their Cubist and Expressionist work, lending impetus to understanding. By the time the Colonial Exposition in 1931 was staged, African American artists could see for the first time an image of an African who was not second-class nor whose ancestors had only recently been given their freedom but an African whose indigenous art was hugely sophisticated and culturally advanced.
Motley himself gained little of lasting influence from his one-year sojourn in Paris on a Guggenheim grant. Perhaps bohemian Paris frightened him after the quiet domestic middle-class life he had led in Chicago. He lived in virtual seclusion in a studio on the rue Blomet; works such as Blues (1929) (see main image) and Dans la Rue (1929), however, do show some recognition of how integrated black culture was in Paris at the time.
Palmer Hayden (1893-1973), Nous Quatre a Paris, c. 1930. Watercolor and pencil on paper. 21 3/4 x 18 1/8 ins. (55.2 x 46 cm). © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence
Palmer Hayden was much more influenced by what he discovered, as can be seen in works such as Fetiche et Fleurs (1926) and Nous Quatre a Paris (1930). In both, the influence of indigenous African art is clear. And the influence of indigenous African art can be seen in the works of William Henry Johnson, especially in his linocut Willie & Holcha, and Hale Woodruff’s The Card Players (1930) and Afro Emblems (1934) both show the deep influence of the world in which he found himself.
For these African American artists, and their inheritors such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, and for European artists, the experience of the numinous world of indigenous African art changed their lives and in turn the development of avant-garde 20th century art.