Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

That modern art was influenced by African sculpture is, by now, an established fact. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 marked the first exploration of African sculptural form in European painting and, for many art historians, the beginning of Cubism. American artists, and specifically those associated with the Harlem Renaissance, were well aware of this aspect of modern art by the 1920s. Alain Locke cited this as one reason for black artists to explore African sculpture:

African sculpture has been for contemporary European painting and sculpture . . . a mine of fresh motifs, . . . a lesson in simplicity and originality of expression, and surely, once known and appreciated, this art can scarcely have less influence upon the blood descendants, bound to it by a sense of direct cultural kinship, than upon those who inherit by tradition only, and through the channels of an exotic curiosity and interest (Locke, "Ancestral Arts," 256).

Douglas had painted in a realist style before his arrival in Harlem but was already enthusiastic about modern art through reading texts like Sheldon Cheney's Primer of Modern Art, Charles Marriott's Modern Movements in Painting, and Henry R. Poore's Conception of Art and the Reason of Design(Kirschke, Douglas, 10). His critique of John Ruskin's views also shows his early predilection for modernist aesthetics: "'You are, in drawing, to try only to represent the appearances of things, never what you know the things to be.' Could anything be more mischievous and misleading?" (qtd. In Kirschke, Douglas, 10).

This sympathy with modernism would be more fully developed after his move to Harlem, and went through several stages through the 20s and early 30s. After his migration, not North but East from Kansas, Douglas had access to actual African sculpture rather than photographic reproductions. He studied works at the Natural History Museum and the Egyptian collection in the Brooklyn Museum and gained a fellowship to study the Barnes Collection in 1928, which he would have first seen in Cheney's Primer of Modern Art (Wardlaw, 59). The latter collection exposed him to many more modernist paintings, but it is likely that it merely confirmed his methods rather than significantly influenced them (Kirschke, Douglas, 105). In 1931 he finally had his year in Paris, a lifelong dream of his that was made possible by the three mural commissions he received the year before (for Fisk University, the College Inn in Chicago, and Bennett College).

Douglas also read Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution during this time (Kirschke, Douglas, 63), a book containing what many consider to be the philosophical underpinnings of modernism. Bergson

saw reality as a constant state of dynamic flux in which past, present and future formed a single continuum. The question of time was all important to him, and he insisted that the time of consciousness existed on multiple interrelated levels. The fusion of these heterogeneous instants comprised a duration. This was not purely quantitative measurable time, but time as it is experienced by human consciousness. To Bergson, duration meant memory, and memory was synonymous with consciousness, an unending flow rather than a succession of discrete instants (Grove Dictionary of Art).

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Douglas' incorporation of various elements of past and present in the same mural panel upended the notion of a purely linear conception of historical time. The importance of race memory in Douglas' work also resonated with Bergson's ideas. Stylistically, Bergson's notion of time was realized in Douglas' use of concentric circles and overlapping planes. This signature design element recalls the work of "orphists" Robert Delaunay and Frantisek Kupka (Kirschke, Douglas, 99).


Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Disk (1912-13)

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Along with dividing visual space into a series of overlapping planes and using concentric circles to emphasize the simultaneity of experience, Douglas blended other concepts of both early (analytic) and late (synthetic) cubism in his work. He drew upon the limited palette of the analytic period, especially in the early 30s when he used primarily browns and greens. His work was conceptual rather than perceptual—his figures were representational signs, like those of synthetic cubism, rather than references to actual objects. His use of Egyptian formal qualities in his work has already been discussed; one concept that he drew from Egyptian art—the use of contrasting vantage points for different parts of an object—coincides with what Picasso learned from Iberian sculpture. This perspective became a central element in the work of artists incorporating cubism.

As discussed earlier, there was, of course, a very significant difference between Douglas' use of African sculptural form and white European and American use of its formal elements. Especially in his murals, Douglas connects this aesthetic with the cultural heritage of the African diaspora in the U.S. Picasso and other white Europeans who appropriated African sculptural forms in their work used them to break with a racial and cultural tradition while Douglas was expressing continuity. At the same time, it is clear that Douglas and the other black writers and painters who looked to Africa in the early 20th century had limited knowledge of the cultural and historical differences of peoples within Africa and so, the continent became a kind of fetishized object for these artists as well (Douglas). What Douglas managed to do, which many artists did not, was to connect the African tradition with other specifically American historical events, especially through African-American musical traditions.

Although they have been categorized as working in the American Scene or even social realism, many American muralists working in the 30s were united by the influence of cubism on their work (Marling, 9). The influence could be seen in

planar flattening . . . of imagery, in the emphasis on a two-dimensional pictorial surface coextensive with that of the wall, and to a lesser extent, in a tendency to adjust the scale of objects freely according to narrative or compositional preferences rather than the canons of reportorial accuracy. In no instance did Cubism inhibit ready public identification of the objects depicted or the stories told. But it in all instances, Cubism branded the mural and its iconography as contemporary and modern (Marling, 10).


Carlos Lopez, Bounty, Paw Paw, Michigan

Marling even entertains the notion that this brand of cubism, since it was acceptable to the general public, excluded other formal possibilities for mural workers under the Section of Fine Arts during this time period.

Anonymous Scherenschnitt

A modernist aesthetic also encouraged a reexamination of folk art, and the influence of this concept can be seen not only in Douglas' references to African-American musical forms, but also through the silhouetted images he used. These were most likely derived from Douglas' instructor in Harlem, Winold Reiss, whose illustrations Douglas had seen in the 1925 issue of Survey Graphic magazine that for historians often marks the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Reiss, who was German, was extremely interested in individuals of other races, including African Americans.Winold Reiss, Interpretation of Harlem Jazz 1 (1925)Reiss also had studied design in Germany and worked as a designer in New York. Reiss was "no doubt familiar with the German folk art technique Scherenschnitt, which influenced his simple black and white designs and often resembled cutouts or collages" (Kirschke, Douglas, 28). Douglas' silhouettes, although undoubtedly influenced by Weiss, are distinctly different in their simplicity and lack of caricature.

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Other influences on Douglas' style are the design principles of Art Deco, popular in the 20s and 30s and perhaps encouraged by Reiss as well. Reiss went on to create Art Deco style murals after teaching Douglas, most notably the murals for Cincinnati's Union Terminal in 1933. Douglas' streamlined shapes and use of geometric figures—concentric circles and overlapping planes, but also stars and wavy lines—connect his murals with a new, modern consciousness.