A handful of world-famous artists have lived and worked in Nashville, but none has played a more vital role in the city’s cultural legacy than the late Aaron Douglas.
With their bold geometric forms, masterful color schemes and powerfully resonant imagery, Douglas’ paintings and murals embodied the hopes and challenges of African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century.
Even after the triumph and tumult of the civil rights era, Douglas’ work remains resonant today, a reminder that humanity is forever engaged in a struggle to survive, to succeed, to thrive. Now, with Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, a major touring exhibition opening Friday at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, visitors have a tremendous opportunity to consider this artist’s achievements and their rippling effect on American life.
“Many in the Nashville community don’t need to be told how important Douglas is,” says exhibition curator Susan Earle, who serves as curator of European and American Art at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. “But now people will be able to see Douglas’ work in as full a presentation as we could make, to convey how incredibly important and influential he was.”
Douglas emerged as one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, when he was a close colleague of such esteemed writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but Douglas also spent much of his life in Nashville.
He painted a stunning series of murals on the Fisk University campus in 1930. (See related story on facing page.) Seven years later, he returned to teach at the school and stayed for three decades, serving for part of that time as the head of Fisk’s art department.
“Douglas’ presence at Fisk was really significant for developing a focus on art and culture on campus there, and that has fanned out across the globe,” Earle says. “There are Fisk alumni all over, and they speak about Douglas with reverence and respect and real admiration for what he did.
“We’re hoping we can share the impact of his message and what he did at Fisk, in New York and elsewhere. They continue to be important things for people to think about.”
Europe, Africa influenced art
Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1899, Douglas grew up at a time when African-American artists weren’t given serious consideration — much less actual opportunities. And yet, as one of the few black students at Topeka High School, he nurtured his talent and his appetite for visual expression. That eagerness to learn is part of what propelled him into the art world at a time when it was bursting with new forms of expression.
“Douglas learned about modernism on his own, by whatever means he could,” Earle says. “He was an avid reader, and he was very broad-minded, interested in absorbing ideas from a variety of sources.”
After earning his bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Nebraska in 1922, Douglas went on to teach high school in Kansas City, Mo. Soon, he felt limited in his life in the Midwest and moved to New York City in 1925. There, he studied with the Bavarian artist Winold Reiss, who taught him about the ways European modernists such as Picasso were heavily influenced by African art.
These ideas, along with prevailing styles such as Art Deco, coalesced in Douglas’ own works. Looking at his paintings and murals from the 1920s through the ’50s, we can see the influence of Cubism, abstraction and even graphic design, but these elements emerge as a unified whole.
“Douglas integrated the most up-to-date techniques and ideas,” Earle says. “Along with African thinking and subject matter, he brought in symbolic subject matter and all of the geometric and modernist emphasis of the avant-garde, and he combined those in ways that no one else did at the time or has done since.”
Art shared experience
In purely visual terms, Douglas’ work is commanding enough, but much of its power derives from the ways he was able to communicate the African-American experience. Upon moving to New York, he quickly became ensconced in the Harlem Renaissance, providing the cover designs for publications such as W.E.B. DuBois’ The Crisis and book jacket illustrations for James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones and Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, to name only two titles. Printed materials such as these are among the nearly 90 works by Douglas featured in the Frist exhibit.
As Douglas developed his visual vocabulary, his work captured the same sense of striving and self-expression that defined the literary works of Hughes, Johnson, Jean Toomer and other Harlem Renaissance writers during the 1920s and ’30s. Though many of his paintings celebrate African-American achievement, so too do they acknowledge the injustices of slavery and discrimination.
“Douglas celebrated African features and motifs, especially Egypt,” notes Katie Delmez, curator for the Frist. “He specifically included pyramids and sphinxes as a very blatant reminder that Egypt is part of Africa. By incorporating African motifs and styles, he was celebrating his past, but he wasn’t necessarily erasing bad times, either.
“That’s another interesting balance in his work: his desire to show both oppression and hopes for a better future. There’s a sense of empowerment in his figures, which is effectively evoked with his use of flattened forms. His use of radiating bands and his use of light are a formal element, but they also highlight certain sections of his work that were of particular importance to him.”
The Spencer Museum’s Earle argues that within Douglas’ trademark style, we can also find a vision that extends beyond the specifics of race.
“He was a true modernist; he believed in progress. He believed art had integrative powers that could make a difference on a deeply spiritual level for each of us, and on an international level.”
Fisk carries on legacy
It was the power of such convictions that brought Douglas to Fisk University, first to paint the murals that still adorn the walls of the school’s Cravath Hall, and later to teach.
“His teaching and mural paintings worked together,” Earle says. “They really did function in many ways as related activities, because they both had messages he was trying to impart.”
Victor Simmons, who teaches at Fisk University and serves as director of the school’s art galleries, can speak directly about Douglas’ influence. Douglas’ example has offered abundant guidance and inspiration for Simmons both as an artist and as an educator, though he never studied under the famed artist.
“When I was a student in the 1970s in this part of the country, almost no university was teaching about African-American art,” Simmons says. “So learning about Douglas was very important to people like me. For African-American artists working after World War II, learning about Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and other modern movements, seeing Douglas’ work gave us a sense that we could find our place within this context, that we had something to contribute to it as well.”
This is an idea that Simmons continues to pass on to his students today.
“It means a great deal to know that I’m a caretaker of that legacy, and we do what we can to impart that legacy to our students. We want them carry it forward in their own way, to embrace the essence of Douglas’ teaching, with its emphasis on excellence, innovation and finding one’s identity.”
By for the Tennesean.com.
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