Aaron Douglas

This post is founded upon a visit I made to the Saint Louis Art Museum in January. It focuses upon the works of the African-American artist Aaron Douglas. This post is made possible by the policies of the Saint Louis Art Museum. The Museum permits photography of almost all of its galleries. More importantly though is its freedom of access. The Museum’s motto is carved above its door, “Dedicated to Art and Free to All”, which means free admission. Aaron Douglas’s artwork is on display in Gallery 321 until April 10, 2011. I hope that you can see all of his works on display, with your own eyes.

Aaron Douglas was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement during which the arts flourished among New York’s booming population of African-American intellectuals. Douglas and his contemporaries created art and literature rooted in the experiences of African-Americans and in themes of political change and social uplift.

Douglas’s simplified, silhouetted figures, flat planes of color, and bold geometric patterns incorporated elements of modernism, but were also strongly influenced by the art of West Africa and ancient Egypt. He sought to create art that was not only formally innovative, but also addressed the lives of African-Americans, a subject largely ignored in American art. Like other artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas helped construct a new paradigm for a positive African-American identity through his work, acknowledging the historical achievements and ongoing contributions of African-Americans to modern culture and society.

Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, Douglas moved to Harlem in 1925 and immediately engaged with the artistic, literary, and scholarly scene he encountered. His visually striking paintings and murals brought great acclaim, as did his collaborations on illustrated books, periodicals and folios with celebrated poets and authors such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Alain Locke.

Douglas exerted a powerful influence upon later generations of artists through both his teaching position at Fisk University, which he held from 1938 to 1966, and his artwork.

Dance demonstrates Douglas’s interest in celebrating Harlem nightlife and the contributions African-Americans have made to American culture. He captures the energy of a pair of dancers by surrounding them with wavy lines and overlaying the entire image with a series of concentric circles. Douglas also employs banana leaves as a framing device and an allusion to the dancers’ African heritage. Douglas wanted to connect jazz, the dancers, and his own role as an artist to a larger cultural tradition with its roots in Africa.

Douglas references the historical oppression of African-Americans with this monochromatic representation of a chain gang, rendered in the artist’s characteristic style. The workers wield pickaxes, while the sedentary bosses in the foreground hold firearms, confirmation that the scene depicts forced labor. In some areas of the South at the turn of the century, officials would arrest African-Americans on false charges. These prisoners were forced into hard labor, a practice that served as an institutionalized mechanism for exploiting African-Americans after the abolition of slavery. 

Noah’s Ark is related to an illustration Douglas created for James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones, a book of poetry based upon the sermons of African-American preachers. Douglas wanted to provide an alternative to earlier Christian art, in which people of African descent were either depicted as servants or not represented at all. In this work, Noah stands at the bow of the ark as supplies and animals are loaded into the ship. A beam of light extending from the corner of the painting emphasizes Noah’s connection to God, while wavy lines and lightning bolts refer to storms to come.

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