Riffs and Relations: African Art and Modernism

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now on view through January 3, 2021.

Early in the 20th century, African art, displayed at ethnographic museums in Europe and circulated in publications, came to the attention of artists as source material for new and exciting possibilities. Yet the objects that arrived in Europe by way of colonialism were interpreted mainly through visual cues and without proper context. This set up an uneven power dynamic and a false dichotomy between “civilized” European and “primitive” African cultures. The European fascination with the art of Africans and other non-Western cultures became known as “Modernist Primitivism.”

In the 1920s and 30s, Harlem Renaissance cultural leader Alain Locke advised in The New Negro and other writings that African American artists draw upon European aesthetic models (including Cubism and German Expressionism) indebted to African art. He also encouraged artists to learn more about Africa to help define their modern identity. In their studies, they looked to photographs of African art featured in Locke’s publications and others and attended exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art’s 1935 African Negro Art, which encompassed over 600 objects primarily from European and American collections. Winold Reiss and Aaron Douglas were among the many artists who engaged with African art in their own work.

Winold Reiss, African Phantasy: Awakening, c. 1925, Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 19 3/4 x 14 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Museum purchase

An immigrant from Germany, artist and illustrator Winold Reiss made a great impact on the visual culture of the Harlem Renaissance. Reiss illustrated Alain Locke’s The New Negro, a publication in which modern black identities were explored and imagined. Reiss’s 1920s modernist style was inflected with the latest Art Deco trends as well as the European modernist vogue for African art. African Phantasy: Awakening was published in the first edition of The New Negro. In an imaginative African setting, Reiss depicts a black couple dancing among patterns and symbols that recall a mythical African past. In spite of some stereotypical aspects, Reiss’s Jazz Age fantasy was of its time. His illustrations in numerous publications had an indelible influence on the development on African American modernists, especially his student Aaron Douglas.

Aaron Douglas, The Negro in an African Setting (later variant of panel 1 of Aspects of Negro Life), 1954, Oil on canvas board, 20 x 24 in., Collection of Steven L. Jones, Philadelphia and Chicago

The early works of Aaron Douglas (b. 1899, Topeka, KS; d. 1979, Nashville, TN) defined the images of the New Negro movement. By synthesizing Alain Locke’s charge to combine African arts and modernist style, he created a new idiom through which African American stories could be told. His aesthetic was heavily influenced by his teacher German modernist Winold Reiss who also advised him to study the arts of Africa.

Douglas is highly regarded for his epic four-panel mural cycle, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Adopting aspects of Cubism, he employed his signature aesthetic to chronicle the movement of African Americans from an African setting through slavery and Reconstruction to the vagaries of modern identity. The Negro in an African Setting, a variant of the first panel in the mural cycle, features many of the same elements of the original mural—men and women dancing and playing instruments, an African styled sculpture, and a border of lush foliage—all animated by concentric circles that radiate outward. New to the scene is a lone female observing from the margins.

Riffs and Relations: Ayana V. Jackson

Artist Ayana V. Jackson discusses her work Judgment of Paris, which premiered in Riffs in Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now at The Phillips Collection.

Ayana V. Jackson, Judgment of Paris, 2018, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 40 × 60 in., Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Chicago

Judgment of Paris was produced in 2017 as part of Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment, a series that looks at the black body in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In general, my work looks at the way the black body, in particular the black woman’s body, has been represented in the history of art and popular culture as well as how it is regarded within the collective memory. Within Intimate Justice, I consider misrepresentation, absence, and exclusion. I look at what is lacking in the representation of the range of possibilities for that body. Using my body, I perform new narratives to reflect the dynamism of the black woman’s experience during that period. Obviously, if we’re talking about the 1800s and 1900s, whether it be in the Americas or other parts of the world, we are likely talking about an enslaved or colonized body, or a body in servitude. That notwithstanding, what is often left out of that frame are other modes of existence that are operating parallel to or at the very least simultaneously.

With regard to the black body in Europe and the Americas, I think it’s important for us to be very careful with the origin stories we tell and the narratives we use to associate with those bodies in that period. One can at once be enslaved and also be a mother, a sister, a lover, an idealist, a dreamer, an inventor, an engineer. These are all selves that the black body and the black woman’s body also occupied in that period of time. To this end, works like Judgment of Paris are my way of portraying the body at leisure as a counterweight to the overrepresentation of black bodies as suffering bodies in pain. It is important to consider that at any given moment, one can choose to embrace another aspect of the self.

Judgment of Paris was selected for the exhibition because it refers to modernism. It references Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, an important piece of Impressionist painting made by Édouard Manet in 1863. It may be known to many that his depiction of two dressed males and two nude and semi-nude females was quite scandalous at the time. As a result, it was rejected from the Paris Salon of 1863, though it was later included in the Salon des Refusés which was commissioned by Edward Napoleon the III.

Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, Oil on canvas, 82 x 104 in., Musée d’Orsay, Paris

I submitted this work to the exhibition not only because of its modernist reference, but more importantly because the “original” itself is a “riff.” To some it is probably unknown that Manet was referring and perhaps sending a nod to an engraving done in the 16th century by a printmaker named Marcantonio Raimondi. This particular engraving, created in conversation with Raphael, depicts the events leading up to the Trojan War. The section that is sampled, riffed, or excerpted by Manet is found in the lower right edge of that print. There are three seated figures—two males and one female seated with her elbow on her knee.

Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael, Judgment of Paris, c. 1515

Manet adopts this piece for Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. I thought it would be interesting to use this work for Riffs and Relations, and initially for Intimate Justice, because Judgment of Paris—the original piece—presents Paris, the mythological character, choosing between three beauties: Juno, Minerva, and Venus. Forced to determine who is the most beautiful he ultimately chooses Venus, as portrayed in the section where he offers the apple to Venus. In considering this scene, I thought it would be beautiful to remix these two narratives and place three black women in the frame.

Manet was quite scandalous for portraying regular woman in his paintings, even worse women believed to be prostitutes in stages of undress. However, the act of bringing the non ”elite” person into the frame is part of what makes that work particularly interesting. My Judgment of Paris seeks to do the same thing—it brings the black woman’s body into a space where it is usually excluded and asks the audience to address it, look at it, and contemplate the meaning of its existence in that context.

I chose not to portray the woman’s figure nude because I didn’t find it necessary; however, I do allow for the character with her elbow on the knee to return the gaze—to confront her audience. Through that confrontation, I’m asking you to not only see the woman but also to see her absence in the history of modernism.

To that point—the topic of erasure—another detail I’d like to point out as we consider my reference material is the story of Manet’s nude in Déjeuner. Victorine Meurent is the same model in his masterpiece Olympia and at least eight of his other major works. Not only that, she was also an artist working in Paris at the time. While this has been proven to be the case, her other “selves” have largely been forgotten in favor of this mode of her existence. And she is not alone in having her agency and her other selves painted over by the brush of history. Thanks to scholars like Dr. Denise Murell, more and more of the names of women working as models during this period are coming to light, particularly black models. For instance, alongside Meurent, the woman presenting the flowers is Laure, a highly sought after and highly coveted model working at the time. She is also featured in multiple masterpieces of the era.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 74 3/4 in., Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In thinking about Laure and Meurent, I am further convinced that it’s imperative for us to revisit artworks in the cannon. We should regularly reconsider how they’ve been discussed, what we focus on when we look at them, who gets to be considered. It is equally important to revisit the characters that are involved in their production and promotion. This is particularly important for those of us looking at these works from the point of view of a person who inhabits a marginalized body, a body that has been misrepresented or misjudged by history. It is incumbent upon us to judge the judges of history and reconsider their judgement. Even if it comes down through the celebrated Paris Salons of the 19th century which helped determine what is considered relevant.

Finally, I would like to add that I am super excited for the opportunity to participate in Riffs and Relations. I am incredibly grateful to Dr. Adrienne Childs for selecting me. It is not every day that an artist gets to hang alongside masters, mentors, friends, and peers. In this exhibition, Carrie Mae Weems and Renee Cox are presented—these are two women I know personally, but more importantly are artists I studied in my earliest years. Their work, as black women who work with photography and with their own bodies, has been incredibly influential. Their work on absence, their tireless placing of their bodies in spaces where it has been excluded is seminal—I learned to claim space through these two women. The opportunity to hang beside them is amazing. I am incredibly inspired by Elizabeth Catlett, and am also proud to hang alongside peers like Titus Kaphar and Hank Willis Thomas. I am perpetually in awe of their work. And, of course, it is an honor to be presented at The Phillips Collection. It is one of the most important collections in our country so to be asked to hang on their walls is a great accomplishment.

Installation view of Riffs and Relations, featuring (left to right) work by Elizabeth Catlett, Titus Kaphar, Ayana Jackson, Renee Cox, and Faith Ringgold

Lastly, I’d like to thank The Phillips Collection and its entire team for putting on this amazing exhibition, and to Dr. Adrienne Childs, I‘d like to express my deepest appreciation for her faith, confidence, and interest in my work.

Riffs and Relations: Reframing Impressionism

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition.

When the Impressionist artists first exhibited their work in Paris in 1874, their loose brushwork and focus on modern life was considered radical by the art establishment. But by the 20th century, the visual language of Impressionism had gained practitioners and collectors and had become a beloved style that was essential to the development of modernism.

Henry Ossawa Tanner and Titus Kaphar are two African American artists with different relationships to this important and influential movement. Tanner was an expatriate artist who worked in an Impressionist style in the early 20th century. On the other hand, in the 21st century, Kaphar disrupts the romantic notion of the Impressionist landscape to urge us to see what lies beneath its beautiful surfaces.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Haystacks, 1930, Oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Gift of Irwin M. Sparr

Henry Ossawa Tanner (b. 1859, Pittsburgh, PA; d. 1937, Paris, France) traveled to Europe in 1891 in hopes of studying art with a freedom not readily available to African Americans in the United States. He forged a successful career and spent the remainder of his life in France. He became a respected and decorated French artist and an inspiration to African Americans in search of a modern and liberated artistic community. Known for his atmospheric paintings of religious subject matter, Tanner was influenced by French Impressionist techniques, in particular the style of the revered Claude Monet. It is likely that Tanner’s canvas pays homage to Monet, whose haystack paintings were exhibited in Paris in 1891, the year Tanner arrived.

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol—Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Claude Monet (b. 1840, Paris, France; d. 1926, Giverny, France) painted Woman with a Parasol in a single session over several hours outdoors. With a vivid palette and a loaded brush, he freely rendered in paint the gentle intimacy shared between a mother and son on a glorious, bright and windy day. Its spontaneity was praised when the picture appeared in the Second Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1876. Monet’s attention to recording the leisure pursuits of modern Parisians, his open brushwork, and his illusionistic approach to light and atmosphere were seen as revolutionary art practices during the 19th century. But they also created a veil of beauty that contemporary artist Titus Kaphar seeks to challenge.

Titus Kaphar, Pushing Back the Light, 2012, Oil and tar on canvas, Courtesy of MARUANI MERCIER Gallery

Titus Kaphar, Pushing Back the Light, 2012, Oil and tar on canvas, Courtesy of MARUANI MERCIER Gallery

Titus Kaphar (b. 1976, Kalamazoo, MI) often taps into art history in order to call attention to its absences and blind spots. In Pushing Back the Light, Kaphar samples Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol–Madame Monet and Her Son (1875), a typical subject of modern life executed with the lush color and bright light for which Impressionism is celebrated. Kaphar disturbs Monet’s luminous landscape with black tar that erupts from behind the figures, literally pushing the canvas to the border of the painting and exposing what he sees as the underbelly of Impressionist art—a movement which flourished during a critical moment in history when black lives were impacted by European colonialism in Africa and racial oppression in America after the Civil War.

The artist explains: “We look at these Impressionist paintings as beautiful pictures of the world, and to a degree they are. But what I am struck by is how much revolution is happening on the planet at the same time that we are looking at these beautiful pictures of people picnicking on the grass. . . . While we are talking and thinking about color in this different kind of way, there are people on the other side of the world who are suffering because of their color.”