New York

Augusta Savage, The Harp, 1939, bronze, 10 3⁄4 × 9 1⁄2 × 4". Souvenir replica.

Augusta Savage, The Harp, 1939, bronze, 10 3⁄4 × 9 1⁄2 × 4". Souvenir replica.

Augusta Savage

In the company of Jacob Lawrence’s streamlined Cubism, Romare Bearden’s faceted and collaged surfaces, and William Ellisworth Artis’s sleek, softly Egyptianized terra-cotta figures, the physiognomically expressive and convincing portrait busts of Augusta Savage (1892–1962) gave her the bearing of an éminence grise in “Renaissance Woman”—the first survey in thirty years devoted to the pathbreaking sculptor, educator, and arts advocate. Curator Jeffreen M. Hayes placed examples of Savage’s limited surviving production alongside works by these and many other artists who benefited from her guidance and her example, among them Selma Burke, Gwendolyn Knight, and Norman Lewis.

The show, which was originally mounted at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, and its accompanying catalogue detailed Savage’s struggles as a black woman artist and her vital impact on the cultural life of the Harlem Renaissance, but said much less about the sensual and technical qualities of her sculpture. Nevertheless, the impression that emerged was that the exquisite verisimilitude of her portraits—of prominent black intellectuals and anonymous children alike—was a political as well as an aesthetic choice, affirming the humanity, dignity, and individuation of black people against Jazz Age primitivisms and the brutalizing caricatures plethoric in early-twentieth-century American visual culture. “Stereotypes of the Negro have been formed by such media as the stage, [and] the function of this art school is to break them,” the civil rights activist and poet James Weldon Johnson told the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker in 1937 on the opening of the Harlem Community Art Center, where Savage served as founding director.

In 1900, Johnson wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the black national anthem. A year after his death, Savage translated her friend’s hymn into monumental form for a 1939 New York World’s Fair commission. Titled by the artist after Johnson’s song but renamed The Harp by the fair’s organizers, the sixteen-foot-tall plaster cast was her biggest, best-known, and last major commission. It was also, perhaps, her most stylistically adventurous, with its immaculate economy of form and geometric rationalization of the human anatomy. Treated to resemble black basalt, the sculpture represents an exultant chorus of a dozen black children in pleated robes. Shaped to look like the strings of a harp, the young boys’ and girls’ columnar, almost massless bodies advance from an enormous, beatific arm that doubles as the instrument’s soundboard. A sitting male figure—distinguished from the seraphic choir by his everyday slacks, shoes, and convincingly modeled flesh—acts as both the foot pedal and a mediator between imperfect reality and the rapturous kingdom of the sculpture. At the New-York Historical Society, The Harp was represented through photographs and a bronze tabletop replica, one of many sold to fair attendees as souvenirs. The monument was destroyed after the event’s end, as no funds were made available to cast or store it.

The hidden gem of this exhibition might have been Reclining Nude, ca. 1932. Carved by Savage in tan marble, the lithe body of a woman elegantly collapses into the slab base, her legs twisting around a triangle of negative space at the sculpture’s center. The wilting posture and downcast gaze vaguely recall the famous Dying Gaul of antiquity, but there is no obvious pathos in her minimally inscribed, almost shockingly unresolved face, virtually obscured behind a cataract of falling hair. The catalogue notes that Reclining Nude “may be the earliest representation of a female body in this trope created by a Black woman, and may be one of the earliest Black female bodies presented in this form.” These are two intriguing propositions. However, unlike many of Savage’s figures, it is nearly impossible to racially identify Reclining Nude with confidence—and its expression and mood are also unreadable. The work’s reticent erotics slip past our gaze; its struggle, in a different key from her anthemic The Harp, militates against our certainty.