Paintings and imagery can be interpreted a large number of ways, all depending on what creative angle it is viewed from. When examining the works of art that were created during the Harlem Renaissance, one must first understand the context and history of this era to fully appreciate the mastery of these creative pieces. This specific painting is a fantastic example of showing what African American individuals went through from the times of The Great Migration up until the Harlem Renaissance. The Great Migration was a major cultural and physical movement of people, that would later set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance. This was the migration of individuals, mostly from African American decent, from the south to the free north of the United States. This move was instigated because of the wildly racist laws put in place against African Americans in the Jim Crow south. This background reasoning can lead to a better understanding of why the Harlem Renaissance occurred, along with the inspiration of the works produced during this era.
The Harlem Renaissance was the first American artistic movement, a time of song, writing, painting, songs, and other forms of art were being rapidly produced during this time period. African American artists were able to express their passions and pain, sometimes being used as forms of peaceful protest. Various painters and their works emerged during this time, making an impact through their art. Aaron Douglas was one of these unique painters and was an artist that rose to notoriety during the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas is from Topeka, Kansas and after graduating from Topeka he attended the University of Nebraska. Throughout his education he found his passion he had for the arts, earning a Fine Arts degree in the 1020's. Soon after graduation he became a teacher for two years, then decided to move to New York City where the Renaissance was just beginning. Douglas became fascinated by the art and culture circulating around and began to create works of his own. Of this time, the poetry and music are commonly focused on, but not the beautiful art or the stories the pieces can tell. As he continued to paint and illustrate his pieces, he became famous and eventually known as one of the most visual artists of the Renaissance. One of his famous murals is very powerful and moving, An Idyll of the Deep South, 1934 which is a part of his mural series Aspects of Negro Life. This piece out of his series shows the times of African Americans before and during the Harlem Renaissance, it makes the view consider all of the hardships the African American community has faced.
This painting can be interpreted as the culture that was created at the time, despite the pain from African American past. This artwork depicts a state of moving forward in society, being able to fully evolve as a community. To begin with the negative aspects of Douglas' work, in the bottom left of the painting, where the shadows are painted, there are individuals being lynched. A rope hangs on the side, along with an individual that is already hung. Lynching was a tactic used to threaten the lives of in the African American community, and strike fear into the African American community in order to scare them into silence, making the people fear voicing their grievances and anger. It shows one of the most horrendous and lethal attempts to silence the voices of rebellion that may have attempted to put end to segregation. Despite this tactic, they did not give up.
Another main symbol and negative aspect of this work is on the right side. African American individuals are painted enslaved. They are holding rakes and kneeling into the dirt as the look on to the individuals in the middle. The background depicts the barns and the farmhouses. Douglas' incorporated these two events to show the dark events of the past that the individuals of the African American community were forced to live through and eventually able to overcome. The north star is a main symbol of this work, depicted in the top left corner shining on the individuals gathering in the middle together. This represents the freedom that expressing oneself creatively gave the black community, along with the times overcome on each side. The individuals are painted dancing and playing instruments, showing their bright prosperity of the current time they were in.
The colors Douglas used in this painting can also be known to represent different meanings based on the color of the objects. The white colored individuals on the left can be representative of the African Americans who died working the fields of plantations, or while enslaved. These individuals, like the light, paved the way to freedom for those that preceded them occasionally by giving their life. The lighter rust colored individuals depicted in the middle can be interpreted as those who are living in the present and have found the guiding light that allows them to create and exist in a more creative and vibrant way. Using this new-found freedom as a means to free on another from their dark past and create various forms of art, as Douglas did with this mural.
Aaron Douglas' work can assist with a full understanding of the events the African American community faced before exoneration from slavery. It is never a common thought of our day and age of what occurred in our racial past because it occurred decades ago. Yet, is not a forgotten subject but the only time individuals ponder the treatment of African Americans, specifically in the slavery times leading up to the Renaissance, is in a history course. Art works such as this can be a reminder of how we have progressed to where our society is today. All of the hardships and battles fought to reach this state of civility and equality. It can influence our society for the progress made and to never take any steps back into our battered history.
Painting is not as popular as it has been in the past, as mentioned before there are other art forms that are commonly focused on in our society today. Paintings can speak tremendous stories that not every individual would ponder by a glance. By analyzing the connections of Douglas' work, this can change the perspective of the meaning of the painting along with all artists work of this era. The Harlem Renaissance was seen as a time of expansion of art of all forms, but it is also a time of improvement as mentioned previously. Throughout American history, there has been an ongoing battle of sexism and racism, even to this current day. In the time of the creation of Douglas' painting, it was a time of flourishing and moving on.
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