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Interpretation of The New Negro in Modernist Art

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The Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement was instigated through Alain Locke. In March 1925 he edited an issue of the Survey Graphic magazine entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, followed by an anthology titled The New Negro: An Interpretation. This anthology was abounding with the illustrations of European artists such as Winold Reiss as well as African American artist Aaron Douglas. Writers who are considered a fundamental part of the black canon today: Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston came of age during this period, a period where the New York Herald Tribune asserted America was ‘on the edge, if not already in the midst, of what might not improperly be called a Negro renaissance.’ Locke persuaded young African American artists to mimic the European modernist movement which was undeniably influenced by African art. Locke acknowledged that ‘by being modern’ that the black artists were inherently ‘being African’ , a comment intended to strengthen their African cultural identity.

Locke’s ideology was rooted in politics, he was convinced that -through the high-level production of art by young black creatives that -there would be a ‘re-evaluation by white and black alike.’ In turn this re-evaluation would lead to an awakening within the negro community, with hopes they would gain momentum in their demand for civil rights, as well as social and economic equality. Unfortunately, due to the 1929 stock market crash the growth of the ‘negro’s cultural adolescence’ was interrupted and ultimately suspended.

Historically, scholars have been reluctant to evaluate the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ positively. The Harlem renaissance was criticised and interpreted as “pandering to white taste in the form of primitive depictions of black sensuality and hedonism in the literature, art, music and dance” . Harlem was a site for culture, Langston Hughes asserted that it “was like a great magnet for the Negro intellectual pulling him from everywhere. Once in New York, he had to live in Harlem.’ These intellectuals intended to transform the banal image of the African American as merely a descendant of slavery, one who is biologically inferior and ‘environmentally unfit for mechanised modernity and its cosmopolitan forms of fluid identity’ to people who recognise their own branch of culture. Motley is effective in his interpretation of this ‘New Negro’.

Nightlife (1943) an oil on canvas painting by Archibald John Motley Jr. illustrates a club setting filled with thirty well-dressed African American people. The eyes are immediately drawn to a couple dancing in the middle of the canvas, a woman dressed in a bright coloured orange dress and her male counterpart dressed in a purple suit. To the right of them is another African American couple sat at a round table in conversation, both are holding drinks in their hand whilst the man simultaneously smokes a cigarette. Motley pays close attention to the varying hues of black skin and is careful to adjust the males skin tone according to the lighting of the nightclub similarly the woman’s dress is shadowed along the breast. The addition of the pearls emphasises the general status of the patrons, from their accessories to high heels to suits, these are people who take pride in their appearance.

Motley’s stunning use of colour and movement, the warmth of the colours and the curved lines used give the impression of a relaxed, joyful and spirited atmosphere where people are having fun. There is perceived depth to the painting as Motley also pays close attention to the sizing and placement of the patrons further away from the viewer, extending the dance floor as far as the eye can see. In addition to the accessories, Motley also pays close to attention to detail through other aspects, this is illustrated through the clock in the top left corner that appears to have struck one AM, this while not prominent is intrinsic to the holistic quality of the artwork. Motley’s technique is effective, he uses thick yet smooth brush strokes whilst simultaneously outlining each figure with intention, each individual is valuable to the story of the painting. Whether in the foreground or background – from the patron slumped over the bar counter to the tasking bartender – they are central to the robustness and commitment of the piece as well as the modernist context in which he works.

In the wake of world-war one the United States was embroiled in a ‘climate of suspicion and xenophobia’, despite this there was still ‘unprecedented prosperity and a rapid rise to global economic leadership’. With this prosperity came a ‘burgeoning mass culture of leisure and entertainment’ which ‘epitomises the Jazz Age of the 1920s’. African- Americans were not immune to this epidemic and it would ripple on for decades to come from ‘movies, radio, records, mass circulation magazines to tabloid newspapers’ , modernity had been transformed and there was now a shift from the old negro to the ‘New Negro’. With the migration of many blacks from the racist south to the north where there was an illusion of sanctuary, economic opportunity, social equity, and freedom from the repressive climate of humiliation, degradation and terrorism Locke endeavours to instil racial pride, self-respect and vitality to African American art. The New Negro endeavours to transform the “‘old’ Negro of slavery and segregation. They challenge hateful racism and the demeaning separatism of Jim Crow with a positive spirit that emphasises African American self-determination and contributions to contemporary American culture.

Alain Locke, a Howard University professor and philosopher published The New Negro in 1925, he defined this shift from old to new in cultural and artistic terms. The Jazz Age is reflected in Nightlife, it offers a glimpse into the African American community immersing themselves in enjoyment and fun. With rampant segregation that extended to restaurants, bars, clubs, as well as many other public places participating in separatist ideas of ‘colored’ or ‘whites only. During this climate it becomes essential for a shift in narrative from the solemn and sombre to joyfulness. Motley’s work, and his willingness to find inspiration in black nightlife and depict spaces where black bodies are given agency to unwind is a direct and stark contrast to the day to day oppressive, anxiety ridden norm. In these spaces African Americans are able to be themselves without fear of ostracisation or judgement.

Although Motley’s work elicits hope in the politics behind the Harlem Renaissance Nathan Huggins’ work asserts that it failed due to the limits of locality. Its representatives accepted race as territory in which to forge a new African American identity, however Huggins’ suggests rather their ‘patria and their nativity’ as American citizens was far more essential. Conversely David Levering Lewis attributes the renaissance’s failings to the ‘wide, ambitious, and delusional striving’ on the part of the intellectuals. Lewis describes the workings of Alain Locke’s anthology: its thirty-four Afro-American contributors (four were white) included almost all the future Harlem Renaissance regulars-an incredibly small band of artists, poets, and writers upon which to base Locke’s conviction that the race’s ‘more immediate hope rests in the revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective.’ To suppose that a few superior people, who would not have filled a Liberty Hall quorum or Ernestine Rose’s 135th Street library, were to lead ten million Afro-Americans into an era of opportunity and justice seemed irresponsibly delusional.

Both critics conclude that African Americans turned to art during the 1920s because they were confined to placing second in their homeland, they were suffocating in white America and art seemed to offer the only means of advancement where the colour of one’s skin was not restrictive. The African American excluded from ‘politics, education, from profitable and challenging areas of the professions and brutalised by all American economic arrangements, African Americans adopted the arts as a domain of hope and an area of possible progress’ .

Critics argue that it is Toni Morrison who succeeds in creating a three-dimensional African American protagonist. Jazz (1926) illustrates a character whose destiny is informed by her environment as well as her actions, she uses the background of Harlem to inform a voice and sharp critique of the old as well as using it to inform the new. Morrison’s message informs as a warning that it is only when artists today speak the city’s ‘loud voice and make that sound human,’ that there is progress. 

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Interpretation Of The New Negro In Modernist Art. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from
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