on Aaron Douglas, the PhD journey, history, Harlem Renaissance and more...
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Figure 1: Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936. Oil on canvas. FAMSF. Full image credit in footer.
Henry Martin: Madeleine, thank you for agreeing to be the first researcher I interview on the Impresario Project. I thought I might ask you a few questions about your current research, life, and Aaron Douglas. I hope that sounds ok? Firstly, it’s 2021, how are you feeling? And what are you up to?
Madeleine Harrison: Thank you so much for having me, Henry, I’m excited! 2021 has been pretty intense; I handed in my PhD thesis in April, so the first few months of the year were quite frantic — I hardly noticed the lockdown because I was wedged at my desk! Now that I’ve handed in, I’m spending as much time outdoors as possible.
Henry: You and I study a similar time period in US (art) history, broadly 1920 to 1940. What are some of the things you have learned about this period that have surprised you?
Madeleine: Learning about the Great Depression never ceases to surprise me, for a number of reasons, one of which is the scale of the federal intervention. Programs like the Public Works of Art Project and Federal Art Project still feel progressive today. It’s hard to imagine recent and current US governments providing that kind of financial stimulus for artists now. It’s amazing to think that in the span of only about ten years, over a hundred community arts centres were established and hundreds of thousands of new public artworks were completed — it’s such a testament to the importance of art as a public good.
Henry: You’re doing a PhD on the African American artist Aaron Douglas (1899–1979). What drew you to this artist and, in turn, your particular focus on his Harlem years?
Madeleine: I first became aware of Douglas in the second year of my undergraduate degree. His visual language felt so unlike anything I had seen before — it’s this incredibly compelling mix of futuristic and traditional, figurative and abstract. What I also realised on seeing Douglas’ work was that there had hardly been any Black artists on any of the courses I’d taken so far. That really compelled me to be more attentive to what I was learning — who was missing? Where was value being placed? Whose history was I reading, being taught, and encountering in spaces like museums and galleries? I kept thinking about those questions during my undergraduate and into my postgraduate study, so returning to Douglas when it came time to apply for a PhD felt pretty natural! And my focus on his Harlem years, which were right at the beginning of his career, felt like a relatively natural one, too —I really wanted to get to the bottom of how his style emerged.
Henry: Can you remember the first work of Douglas that you saw in person? What impression did it make on you? Do you have a favourite work now?
Madeleine: I had already applied to do my PhD by the time I actually got to see one of his works! It was the 1936 painting Aspiration [Figure 1], which was in London for the Royal Academy’s America After the Fall exhibition in 2017. It’s really exemplary of Douglas’ mature style — the typical silhouetted figures, a colour palette of just purple and gold, and a huge star overlaid on top of the scene, emitting these pulses of light that illuminate everything. I remember standing in front of it beaming. There’s this incredibly resonant quality — Douglas’ works kind of absorb and envelop you. There’s a transhistorical aspect to his style, too, where you can’t really tell whether the work is set in the past, present or future, which makes each one feel so limitless in its scope. It’s impossible to pick a favourite!
Henry: For me, Douglas’ signature work (at least the work I’m aware of) is unmistakably, well, his. It is very distinctive. Did it take him a long time to reach his signature style? Was he an artist who was constantly experimenting throughout his life, or was he more comfortable working in an established idiom?
Madeleine: I completely agree — the work Douglas is best known for is all executed in a very standardised, graphic, visual language. The development of that style was quite a gradual process that began as soon as he arrived in Harlem in 1925. It was only really by 1934 that the type of scene we’re most familiar with — colourful, a bit abstract, usually historical in subject matter — had emerged. Interestingly, though, when Douglas was making work for a private commission, for a friend, or just for the fun of it, he didn’t use that signature style — those less public works are really naturalistic, painterly, and figurative. Which is interesting, in itself: his graphic style seems to have been intended to communicate certain ideas to its publics, which is something I thought a lot about in my thesis.
Henry: Doing a PhD is a huge undertaking. Are you getting time to enjoy other writers and artists outside of your research on Douglas?
Madeleine: One of the joys of writing on Douglas is that his practice was so collegial, so collaborative — he worked with so many other artists, philosophers, social scientists, people like W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston. So, during my PhD I’ve been able to read quite widely in their works, which have in turn led me to look to later writers like James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon and bell hooks. It’s been really mind-expanding in ways that go far beyond my research. I’ve also been teaching this year on everything from seventeenth-century Dutch painting to contemporary internet art, so I’ve been on quite a whirlwind tour of Western art through that!
Henry: How has the PhD journey been for you? Do you feel you have any wise words to pass on to someone just starting out?
Madeleine: It’s been a rollercoaster. A lot of ups and downs, with most of the downs coming during the pandemic! I’ve been lucky, though, to have had a really supportive supervisor and an amazing cohort. I’d remind someone starting out not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good — my supervisor says, ‘don’t get it right, just get it written,’ and I think that’s such valuable advice. Don’t agonise over every word, especially in the first couple of years — you can, and will, come back and edit everything anyway.
Henry: I spend a lot of my time thinking about how art gets from the studio to the museum wall; the networks of patrons, dealers, collectors, and curators who impact how a work is shown, circulated, promoted and so forth. Did Douglas have any recurring important supporters of his work that we should be indebted to?
Madeleine: That’s a very interesting question where Douglas is concerned. He worked mostly in illustrations and murals, so most of his work wasn’t collected in the same way that, for example, easel paintings are. He had some notable supporters, though. When Douglas first moved to Harlem, he was supported by Du Bois and by Charles S. Johnson through commissions and useful social introductions; but he was also patronised by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white widow who also supported Hughes and Hurston. She was extremely demanding, and she kind of held these young artists hostage: she would only give them the money she promised them if they produced the kind of work she wanted to see, which was, in her words, ‘primitive.’ After Douglas ended his relationship with Mason he was supported mostly by foundations like the Barnes and Harmon Foundations. He struggled for money a lot.
Henry: What’s the question you wish someone asked you about Aaron Douglas, but they never have?
Madeleine: That’s a great question! I wish people would ask me about what Douglas did after he left Harlem. He’s generally understood to be a ‘Harlem Renaissance’ artist, but he only lived in Harlem for about a decade, and what he did afterwards is just as interesting. He founded the Fine Art department at Fisk University, which is a Historically Black University in Nashville, where he’d painted a huge mural series in 1930. He stayed in Nashville for the rest of his life — he was the head of department at Fisk for three decades. I really think pedagogy was as important to Douglas as artmaking, and there are so many revealing overlaps between his priorities as an artist and as a teacher — in both practices, he seems really to have been concerned with recording and archiving Black life and with sharing Black American histories that weren’t part of prevailing bodies of knowledge. I wish more people looked at Douglas’ practice beyond Harlem, and I wish more people visited Fisk — it’s a beautiful campus with an incredible art collection!
Madeleine Harrison is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century art and visual culture from the United States, with interests in painting, photography, illustration and mural practice. Her research explores the visual histories of race in the US, and particularly considers the degree to which common images of racialised subjects produced popular knowledge about race. She recently submitted her PhD thesis, which provided a new account of the style the artist Aaron Douglas developed while living in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, demonstrating that Douglas’ visual language referred to and remade popular historical images and narratives depicting Black subjects. >> TWITTER.
Image credit: Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936. Oil on canvas. FAMSF, museum purchase, the estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs Jr., the Museum Society Auxiliary, American Art Trust Fund, Unrestricted Art Trust Fund, partial gift of Dr. Ernest A. Bates, Sharon Bell, Jo-Ann Beverly, Barbara Carleton, Dr. And Mrs. Arthur H. Coleman, Dr. and Mrs. Coyness Ennix Jr., Nicole Y. Ennix, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Francois, Dennis L. Franklin, Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell C. Gillette, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Goodyear, Zuretti L. Goosby, Marion E. Greene, Mrs. Vivian S. W. Hambrick, Laurie Gibbs Harris, Arlene Hollis, Louis A. and Letha Jeanpierre, Daniel and Jackie Johnson Jr., Stephen L. Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lathan, Lewis & Ribbs Mortuary Garden Chapel, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Love, Glenn R. Nance, Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Parker III, Mr. and Mrs. Carr T. Preston, Fannie Preston, Pamela R. Ransom, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin F. Reed, San Francisco Black Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Chapter of Links Inc., San Francisco Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Dr. Ella Mae Simmons, Mr. Calvin R. Swinson, Joseph B. Williams, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred S. Wilsey, and the people of the Bay Area, 1997.84
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