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The Harlem Renaissance


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If one accepts that the Harlem Renaissance ran from 1918 until the Wall Street Crash of 1929, as stated by Stuart (Stuart 40), then William Henry Johnsons Chain Gang (1939) would not qualify as a Harlem Renaissance painting, yet I still wish to talk about it because I believe that it offers a useful comparison to Palmer Haydens Jeunesse (1927), (or Bal Jeunesse) and I feel that it qualifies as falling within the Renaissance if for no better reason than that it is commonly cited in literature and web sites devoted to the Harlem Renaissance. At any rate Johnson was a black modernist painter in Harlem during the Rennaissance and that seems to qualify Chain Gang as belonging to the genre.

Details such as the paintings colour, subject and the politics of its subject, categorise the painting as modernist as much as the technique that the artist employs.


Entitled either Bal Jeunesse: the French for the young peoples Ball/Dance, or Jeunesse: the young people, Palmer Haydens painting depicts the youth of Harlem in their leisure time as the New Negro movement would wish them to be seen. The subjects are two young, urban, well dressed, cultured (if you can tell such a thing by appearance as the Renaissance artists seemed to assert) black people dancing to the new modern jazz sounds of Harlem.


In his work Chain Gang, Johnson moves away from the upper class New Negro dancers of Haydens work, and chooses to present an image of three (?) black prisoners in a two dimensional, nave style. Despite the fact that such a theme could be seen as a response to modernist idealism, Chain Gang is a modernist work due to the way in which Hayden represents the prisoners. MacLeod states that Cubism introduces a new way of representing three-dimensional objects. Instead of reproducing the object according to realistic conventions the painter is free to break apart the object and distribute its pieces about the canvas (MacLeod 200) and so whilst Chain Gang is by no means cubist, it has taken up the idea of re-distribution of where things really are. Thus, the prisoners depicted in Chain Gang have the limbs contorted and merging with one another, not to represent any physical strain on the body of the prisoner, although this could certainly be argued, but the direction of the limbs could be seen as a political statement about the state of the African-American society in the United States; broken, reduced to an uncomfortable position in society. The prisoners with their twisted limbs are a microcosm of Afro-America; not people at all but figures that authority (the painter/ the prison guard) could manipulate and control. It is also possible to see Johnsons technique; the distortion of shapes as following the avant-gard trend of modernism and as reinforcing the discourse of the New Negro who tries to reproduce white culture in order to be vindicated as good at art like the white man.


Belton, Val-Jean, African-American Art and the Political Dissent During the Harlem Renaissance www.yale.edu.au/ynhti/curriculum/units/2000/4/00.04.01xhtml 1/9/01

MacLeod, Glen, The Visual Arts in Levenson, Michael (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Modernism pp 194 - 216

Miers, Charles (ed) Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America (New York: Harry N Abrahms Inc, 1987)

Przybilla, Carrie William Henry Johnson www.pbs.org/ringsofpassion/joy/johnson.html 1/9/01

Stuart, Andrea The Harlem Renaissance in the twenties produced a wealth of black talent. But what was its legacy and who did it really benefit?. New Statesman (1996), June 27, 1997 126:4340: 40-41

Modernism and Modernity www.inivia.org/harlem/modern.html 1/9/01

The New Negro www.inivia.org/harlem/negro.html 1/9/01

www.assumption.edu./HTML/Academic/history/His130/P-H/Harlem2/default.html 1/9/01