The Harlem Renaissance Is Coming to the Met

A new exhibition will be the first survey of the cultural movement in New York City since 1987

Black Belt
Archibald J. Motley Jr.'s Black Belt (1934) Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr. / Bridgeman Images

Begining in the early 20th century, artists of the Harlem Renaissance produced groundbreaking works that celebrated Black culture and captured everyday life. Soon, more than 150 of those pieces will go on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Titled “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” the new exhibition will feature paintings, sculptures, films, photographs and more. The Met is billing it as the first survey on the movement in New York City since 1987.

“This landmark exhibition reframes the Harlem Renaissance, cementing its place as the first African American-led movement of international modern art,” says Max Hollein, the Met’s director and CEO, in a statement. “Through compelling portraits, vibrant city scenes and dynamic portrayals of night life created by leading artists of the time, the exhibition boldly underscores the movement’s pivotal role in shaping the portrayal of the modern Black subject—and indeed the very fabric of early 20th-century modern art.”

According to the Met, a “significant percentage” of the artworks come from historically Black colleges and universities. Curator Denise Murrell has spent two years working with conservators and archivists from those institutions, which include Howard University, Fisk University, Hampton University and Clark Atlanta University, reports the New York Times’ Zachary Small.

Woman in Blue
Woman in Blue (1943) by William Henry Johnson Clark Atlanta University Art Museum

The Harlem Renaissance, which lasted from roughly 1918 to 1937, was a cultural explosion of Black art, music, literature and more based out of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. While the period is best known for its association with writers like Langston Hughes and musicians like Duke Ellington, the new exhibition will zoom in on the rich legacies of the era’s artists.

One noteworthy work—which the Times calls “the exhibition’s signature image”—is the painting Woman in Blue (1943) by William H. Johnson. In it, a Black woman in a blue dress sits with her arm draped over a chair.

“The colors are striking,” Danille K. Taylor, director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, where the painting is usually housed, tells the Times. “It’s the angle that she looks at you. The colors and texture give it a three-dimensional quality.”

This is not the Met’s first attempt to showcase art from the Harlem Renaissance. In 1969, it curated an exhibition called “Harlem on My Mind.” While the show featured newspaper clippings and photographs, it excluded work by Black painters and sculptors, drawing harsh critiques. A week before the show opened, prominent artists organized a protest, holding signs that said, “Harlem on Whose Mind?

Samuel Joseph Brown Jr.'s Self-Portrait (circa 1941) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Now, more than five decades later, the Met is trying again. While the new show “is not a direct response” to “Harlem on My Mind,” Murrell hopes to “address its legacy” by featuring the work of James Van Der Zee, a renowned photographer of the era, whose photos were featured in the 1969 show, per the Times. (The Met acquired tens of thousands of his prints and negatives several years ago.) And unlike “Harlem on My Mind,” the upcoming show will center painting and sculpture.

“Becoming painters of modern life within their own communities was key to what the Harlem artists were attempting,” Murrell tells the Times. “It was an act of radical modernity, for example, to make portraits of an elder Black woman who would have been born into enslavement. And to make them in such a dignified way—those images simply did not exist in previous periods.”

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from February 25 to July 28, 2024.

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