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“The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at the Met Museum” reviewed

The first thing you’re likely to read about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance is that it’s a long-overdue atonement for past sins. Specifically, 1969’s “Harlem on My Mind,” the museum’s first survey of African American culture, which included photographs of Black people and no other art at all — as if the people themselves were curiosities on display. Denise Murrell, curator of “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” is keenly aware of the “stupefying, clueless racism” of that earlier fiasco, as she told the New York Times. Boasting more than 150 paintings, sculptures, and photographs by mostly Black artists, the current show dances on the old show’s grave.

But there is more going on here than a mere righting of historical wrongs. The clue is in the second half of the show’s name — “Transatlantic Modernism” — which gestures at the scope of its ambition. The Harlem Renaissance largely took place in the 1920s and ’30s, just when modernism was reaching the zenith of its influence across art, literature, and music. Yet these two periods of heady artistic activity have been walled off from each other in the collective memory, the Black portion of the story having gone mostly ignored. The Met’s show about Harlem suggests that we have gotten modernism — the big bang of 20th-century art — all wrong and that it was wilder and even more radical than we had known.

A whoosh of fresh air blows through this show. It treats us to a mini-survey of the great Archibald J. Motley, whose paintings of music halls and gambling back rooms depict what Alain Locke, a great theorist of the era, described as “the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid” in one of his essays on “the New Negro.” The suave, dapper figures in Motley’s pictures are among the 6 million people who escaped to large northern cities from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration, creating the conditions for an artistic efflorescence across the country and beyond. In fact, there were many Harlem Renaissances: This exhibition features scenes from Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and even Paris, which Motley visited in 1929.

We see parades and bands by Malvin Gray Johnson. There are incredible portraits by Elizabeth Catlett, including the quasi-Cubist Head of a Woman, and Laura Wheeler Waring, whose Girl With Pomegranate is an exercise in profuse color and quiet sensuality. William H. Johnson’s Moon Over Harlem shows a Black woman and a Black soldier being mercilessly beaten by policemen on New York streets — one of several references to the discrimination and violence Black people continued to face after fleeing the white-hooded South. Everywhere there are epic photographs of contemporary Black life by James Van Der Zee, who, with Gordon Parks, was one of the only Black photographers in the Met’s 1969 show. And then there is Romare Bearden’s multi-panel work The Block, a street scene packed with everything from a coffin-bearing procession to façades festooned with collaged posters that peer out from the buildings like windows into the city’s soul. It is a masterpiece.

Murrell has said the show foregrounds “the portrayal of the modern Black subject by Black artists” and spotlights perspectives “that had historically been excluded from artistic representation and obliterated in the histories of art.” This noble goal is the culmination of larger trends in the art world, in which long-neglected Black artists now command sky-high prices for their work and museums, galleries, and biennials are featuring more marginalized artists in what amounts to a giant course correction.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to emphasize Black subjectivity too strongly, for while it is surely different from white subjectivity, neither is totally unknown to the other. Until now, these pieces have been kept in racial silos — the labels of the Met’s exhibition reveal that much of this work comes from private collections, historically Black colleges and universities, and institutions devoted to Black culture — echoing the art world’s own tacit message that Black art has run on a different track from modernism and all the avant-garde movements it birthed, from Expressionism to minimalism.

Murrell and her team at the Met have not only unearthed these pieces for a broader audience but also shown that Black art is a part of modernism, which is so much more than Picasso, Matisse, and other practitioners of white-guy aesthetics. Modernism dissolved old forms while restoring a connection to a past that had been sundered by technological revolutions and social disruptions — breathing life into the grand tradition of art by, as Ezra Pound put it, making it new. Black artists, of course, experienced those changes and more, which is reflected in work featuring broken narratives, discontinuous lives, and a ceaseless groping for novel visual vocabularies.

The white modernists on display at the Harlem Renaissance show reveal that they, in turn, were influenced by Black life. There’s a tremendous portrait by Edvard Munch, Abdul Karim With a Green Scarf, that goes against the era’s exoticism by showing a Black model in western dress, and a crazy painting by Kees van Dongen of a Black woman decked out in a wild circus act of a hat.

Experienced all together, these works testify to the immense pathos that can bloom from a very specific time, place, and viewpoint.