Even before joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Dennis Murrell was dreaming up an exhibition devoted to the Harlem Renaissance—one that would bring together black artists devoted to “radical modernism,” as he described it, from New York to Paris and beyond.
On Tuesday, the museum announced that exhibit, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism.” It opens Feb. 25, runs through July 28, and will include a group of paintings from historically black colleges and universities across the country. The Met says it will be New York’s first major survey in nearly 40 years devoted to one of the most influential artistic movements to emerge in the United States in the early 20th century.
“Becoming painters of modern life within their own community was at the heart of what the Harlem artists were trying to do,” said Murrell, who joined the Met in 2020 and is now its curator. “It was an act of radical modernity, for example, to create portraits of an elderly black woman who was born into slavery. And to create them in such a dignified way—those images simply didn’t exist in the past.”
Major museums, for the most part, did not begin collecting such works until a few decades after the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned nearly two decades from 1918 to 1937. Weather officials said the museum’s own collection was spotty, with some acquisitions dating back to the 1940s and again in the past 15 years, though it included masterpieces by Samuel Joseph Brown Jr And Charles Henry Alston. Instead, many of these cultural gems went into private collections and historically black colleges and universities.
Murrell has spent the last two years working with organizations who work on conservation and archival research projects; In return, significant loans from Howard University, Fisk University, Hampton University and Clark Atlanta University are coming to the “Harlem Renaissance” exhibit.
About half a dozen artworks are currently in the Met’s conservation studio, and in preparation for the show, the museum sends photographers around the world to take new pictures of artworks from its collections in cities like London and Chicago. These include notable works by neglected female artists such as Laura Wheeler Waring, whose portraits of women put their deep inner lives on canvas.
A standout in the exhibition is the 1943 painting “Woman in Blue” by William H. Johnson, who spent the 1920s and 1930s in Europe learning the techniques of modernism. After his wife’s death in Denmark in 1947, he returned to New York after a mental breakdown. He was confined to Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island, unable to paint until his death in 1970.
A portrait of a seated woman with one arm resting on a chair, gazing pensively, rarely appeared, Murrell said, although a Previous studies The picture is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The painting will be the signature image of the exhibition.
Daniel K., director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. “The colors are striking,” said Taylor, who contributed five paintings to the exhibition, including the Johnson painting. “It’s the angle that he looks at you. The color and texture give it a three-dimensional quality.”
Until recently, the painting had large cracks across its surface and was in desperate need of restoration; The Met funded the portrait’s conservation, allowing it to travel outside the university.
Murrell said he hoped “Harlem Renaissance” would be the start of a long-term partnership between the Met and historically black colleges and universities to help preserve and display their collections on a national scale.
But the exhibit also brought some additional baggage to the Met, whose 1969 exhibit “Harlem on My Mind” drew angry protests over the exclusion of black painters and sculptors in favor of newspaper clippings and documentary photography that captured predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. .
Although the new exhibit is not a direct response to that show, Murrell said he will address its legacy by including the work of James Van Der Zee, a leading photographer of the Harlem Renaissance whose photos were included in the 1969 show. Many of the photographs come from an archive acquired by the Met and Studio Museum in Harlem in 2021 from the artist’s widow.
The curator also mentioned that the exhibition will focus on painting and sculpture, mediums that were previously excluded. This includes the sculptor Augusta Savage, who opened it Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts In 1931, it trained more than 1,500 students, including Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence, and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence.
According to the museum, it is New York’s first major survey of the Harlem Renaissance since 1987, when Harlem’s Studio Museum staged its own exhibition.
“We want to show the full breadth of thought,” Murrell said. “In terms of historical context, this is the first time in art history that we have a group of African American artists who depicted modern black life in a modern way. These artists decided to commit their artistic careers to representing modern black life in the absence of institutional or market support.”