(The following are excerpts from “Aaron Douglas: A Private View- Selections From The Daniels Collection”, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, 2003. Essay by Kinshasha Holman Conwill.)
“This exhibition represents a confluence of narratives. First, with works that span a period of more than forty years, it offers a glimpse into Aaron Douglas’s own narrative as a seminal African American artist and illustrator of black life. Douglas’s career must be seen against thebackground of African American academic life at Fisk, one of the nation’s premier historically black colleges, and the larger narrative of black struggle and achievement in twentieth-century America. It is also the narrative of the friendship between Douglas and Laverne Daniels, the collector who was enchanted by his work and by the “charming and delightful” man who created it.
Although Douglas (1899-1979) is rightly identified with Fisk University, where he founded the department of art in 1939 and was its chairman for many years, his role in the larger world of African American art began more than a decade earlier. After graduation from the University of Nebraska, Douglas headed to Harlem and began the artistic journey that would lead to the work of his greatest renown. His award-winning work for the leading journals of black life and the struggle for civil rights- the Urban League’s “Opportunity” magazine and the NAACP’s “The Crisis”- was created in a style influenced by his teacher, Winold Reiss, and established Douglas as the principal illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas’s singular style was also represented in James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” (1927) and was identified with the progressive ideas and aspirations publications such as this one represented. The ideals of the period that Douglas’s work embodied- including explicit reference to an African past linked to a modernist sensibility- were primarily defined by the Howard University scholar Alain Locke in his book “The New Negro” (which was illustrated by Douglas).
As the art historian Richard Powell observes, even before Douglas’s association with Fisk, he “inadvertently continues the black institutional stratagem of constructing visual narratives and pictorial signs that proclaim African American sovereignty, ingenuity, and promise.”
Works included in the exhibition, such as the gouache study for the mural in the present- day admissions office at Fisk, are indicative of the “pictorial signs” of promise that Powell identifies. The ennobled figures embodying struggle and progress limned in the study mirror images that he was to create in numerous other murals, book and magazine illustrations, and paintings. They reflect Reiss’s influence, Douglas’s affinity for and experimentation with Cubism, and his interest in Egyptian art and West African sculpture. The study’s stylistic conventions and subject matter are in the tradition of some of Douglas’s most significant works, including the series “Aspects of Negro Life” (1934) and the painting “Building More Stately Mansions” (1944), also created for Fisk. All of these works share themes and compositional elements that resonate with a combination of African and African American history and religious iconography, along with the broader modernist traditions that Douglas embraced.
Douglas’s geometric imagery also recurs in other works in the exhibition, such as “Birds in Flight” (1927) and the highly abstract work “Creation” (1969). Though these smaller- scale paintings lack the monumentality of Douglas’s better- known murals, they affirm his enduring attraction to geometric abstraction. And while the remaining works in the exhibition, generally still-life and plein-air watercolors, are more prosaic in subject matter and less dynamic in style, they reveal the arc of Douglas’s friendship with Mrs. Daniels while subtly providing a narrative of an African American artist and academic who was privileged to travel (sometimes with support from the Rosenwald and Barnes Foundations) throughout the country and abroad at a time when legal segregation was still a dominant reality of American life. Douglas’s landscapes of docks in San Francisco, a lone tree in the mountains, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and a street corner in Lagos, Nigeria are gentle evidence of the independence of an artist able to pursue the pure pleasure of the artistic life, in spite of existing societal constraints."