V

Narratives of African American Art and Identity

Norman Lewis

The Red Umbrella, n.d.

Etching on paper

11.75" x 15.75"


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The Red Umbrella

From the 1920s through the 1940s, many African American leaders, historians, and artists believed it was the social responsibility of black artists to create works that would heighten the awareness of cultural and political issues within the black community. However, in the 1940s, Lewis rejected the notion that art should be used as a tool for social protest and became an Abstract Expressionist. Because of his decision to abandon social realism in favor of nonobjective aesthetics, Lewis was heavily criticized by members of the African American arts community.

According to Bearden's and Henderson's 1993 History of African-American Artists, the criticism Lewis experienced during this period may have led him to feelings of extreme isolation in asserting his right to paint as he felt. From this isolation, they add, Lewis would often create works containing small clusters of trailing figures, symbolizing the absence of individuality and true independence in American culture.

Although undated, the abstracted figurative style in The Red Umbrella appears to relate the period of trailing figures in Lewis's work during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The line of figures actively wrestling with umbrellas might refer to Lewis's concepts of independence and interdependence.   T. F.

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