The gathering of the Harlem Renaissance

The Hewitt Collection opens tomorrow at the BMA

May 29, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Vivian and John Hewitt arrived in New York from Atlanta in the early 1950s and settled in Harlem. Like many middle-class African-American couples of modest means - she was a librarian, he a teacher - they had both loved art since childhood, and they purchased their first prints together while on their honeymoon.

Soon, through friends and relatives, they established new friendships in Harlem's lively African-American artistic community, whose members then included such seminal figures as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff. The Hewitts' Sugar Hill residence quickly became a center for the tight-knit community's black artists and writers, whose works the couple purchased enthusiastically - mostly on lay-away - whenever they could.

Now the artworks lovingly assembled during those heady postwar years are the subject of a stunning exhibition, Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African-American Art, which opens tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The show includes more than 50 paintings, watercolors, collages, prints and drawings by African-American artists amassed over three decades. In 1990 the Bank of America purchased nearly the entire collection, which has been touring the country since 1999. (John Hewitt died in 2000.)

"We bought from the heart, the things that moved us and that we liked," said Vivian Hewitt, who was in Baltimore this week for the show's press preview. (She still lives in New York but has moved out of her elegant Harlem brownstone to an apartment.) "Art is very subjective, and one brings to a painting or any other artwork something of one's own background. So that was what we did."

The artistic and cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance began in New York after World War I and in one form or another has continued to influence African-American art down to the present day.

Yet for most of that time, the achievements of African-American artists, and their contributions to a uniquely American form of modernism, went largely unrecognized. Black artists had few opportunities to exhibit or sell their work and still fewer dedicated patrons to support their ideas and careers.

The Hewitts were almost unique in choosing to purchase works by African-American artists, most of whom were well outside the mainstream of New York's downtown galleries and museums during the 1950s and '60s.

In an era dominated by abstract-expressionism, Pop Art, minimalism and conceptual art, black artists' insistence on examining issues of racial identity and their efforts to shape aesthetic visions uniquely suited to describe their experience as African-Americans ran counter to critical fashion.

Yet their struggle to reconcile racial and aesthetic concerns could produce striking formal re-inventions.

Bearden, for example, took up the photomontage form pioneered by such early 20th-century modernists as John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch and turned it into a supple tool for expressing African-Americans' political and social struggles during the civil rights era.

Bearden's complex compositions, which he constructed from photographs cut from popular magazines, have the lyrical quality of a jazz improvisation.

In Jamming at the Savoy (1988), for example, the musicians' bodies and instruments are visual metaphors for the cool languor of the popular Harlem night spot, while in Homage to Mary Lou (1984), a piano lesson provides the occasion for an inventive essay about the emotional bonds between women.

Bearden's art tended toward abstraction. The work of Ernest Chrichlow, by contrast, rests on a heightened sense of realism that heightens his depictions of ordinary life among African-Americans. In the delightful Girl with Flowers (1979), for example, Chrichlow is as lyrical as Bearden in his description of the little girl's sun-drenched dress and bright floral bouquet. This is a picture into which the harsher realities of American race relations during the 1960s and '70s simply are not permitted to intrude.

The Hewitts collected works by Chrichlow from every stage of the artist's career, and because they knew him personally, they were able to appreciate his art on multiple levels.

"Ernie glorified and gave form to his admiration for African-American women and children particularly," Vivian Hewitt recalled. "He depicted them with dignity and with a certain poignancy."

Yet Chrichlow was aware of the social upheavals taking place during the 1950s around the Brown decision that overturned segregation in the public schools. In a print he titled Waiting (1965), a black schoolgirl looks through the mesh of a barbed-wire fence with an ambivalent expression on her face.

"He named a lot of his paintings `waiting,'" Hewitt said. "This one was during the Brown vs. Board struggle. You don't know where it takes place or what this little girl is thinking behind that barbed wire - is she being barred from school or from a playground or somewhere else? - but she's sure waiting for that barrier to come down."

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