The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t just nightclubs. It was about ideas.

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NEW YORK — Two women stare directly at the viewer with such intensity that you hardly notice the thing that had just engaged them, perhaps moments before the artist captured their likeness. The young woman on the right holds an open book while the figure on the left rests her hand upon her chin, as if she has just been studying, intently, the page in front of her.

The 1925 painting, “Two Public School Teachers,” is by Winold Reiss, a White German artist who immigrated to the United States in 1913 and became a leading portrait painter of the Harlem Renaissance. The Met includes some half dozen works by Reiss in “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” a landmark exhibition largely devoted to portraiture.

Reiss’s “Two Public School Teachers” was, like many of his paintings, controversial. It was displayed at a 1925 exhibition of Reiss’s work and became the focus of strong feelings. At a public meeting where the exhibition and Reiss’s art were discussed, one man reportedly said, “Should he meet those two schoolteachers in the street, he would be afraid of them.”

Stare at it as long as you like: It’s hard to imagine one’s way into the man’s feelings. There is nothing fearsome in these two women, and the comment about their striking fear into a passerby was probably made by a Black viewer. What he apparently feared was that they would scare White people, or present a view of Harlem that would confirm White prejudice. And so, the painting perfectly enacts an idea that is central to the exhibition, curated by Denise Murrell: double consciousness.

W.E.B. Du Bois, who is represented in the show by another Reiss portrait, made the idea central to thought about African American identity in his 1903 “The Souls of Black Folk”: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.”

Reiss’s painting uses two women, sitting close together, to suggest the doubleness of consciousness, but it also seems to imagine a way out of this painful trap of self-consciousness and masking. The book the women read, whose contents they will pass on to their students, is effectively blank, with a large square of empty space and only a few vague suggestions of type, or perhaps the empty ledger lines of a piece of music yet to be written. That blankness can stand for whatever fear the young women may have prompted in White people, or it could stand for new, unwritten narratives and ideas that they will add to the world’s storehouse.

The word “new” is also central to the exhibition, which not only captures a vivid sense of cultural flowering in Harlem between the First and Second world wars but also traces the ideological fault lines that dominated so much of the discourse about the period. The word appears in the title of Alain Locke’s anthology “The New Negro: An Interpretation,” and it recurs in myriad conversations about a new identity, or new consciousness rising among Black people who had migrated to cities in the North, including to Harlem in New York.

That aggregation of talent, energy and audience created what felt like a moment of rupture and renewal, a chance to reinvent Black life and Black consciousness, to escape the self-imprisoning consciousness that Du Bois anatomized and the even more debilitating quiescence and accommodation advocated by Booker T. Washington, who belonged to an earlier generation of Black leadership.

How new should the art be that represented this moment of renewal? Should it look to the new artistic modernism ascendant in Europe and increasingly in New York? Or did the times call for new ideas but packaged in time-tested and widely popular aesthetic styles and media? The debate wasn’t a private conversation played out among artists, but a public and often painful one that caused division between older Black elites and the “new Negro” artists, critics and advocates.

As with so many stylistic arguments, it’s hard to understand the force and power of the debate from our current perspective. A traditional 1944 portrait of Marian Anderson by Laura Wheeler Waring, whose style tended to be formal and conservative, is monumental and magnificent, as if her mere force of presence was summoning the landscape, seen in a corner of a painting within the painting. But among the highlights of this exhibition is a gallery of large-scale paintings by Aaron Douglas, pastel-colored, flattened and stylized images that refashion a heroic narrative of African American history and striving. Both the traditional Anderson portrait and the modernist visions of Douglas are striking, and moving.

At the time, however, one might have made reductionist arguments about both ways of making art. Ideas and history seem to fall out of traditional portraiture, which captures psychology and physical presence, and real people don’t seem to exist in art that stylizes and abstracts familiar realities. Perhaps there is an allusion to both criticisms in Palmer Hayden’s 1932-1933 “Fetiche et Fleurs.” It is a still life, as conventional a form as any in the artistic canon, but it includes a Fang reliquary mask alongside the standard bouquet of flowers. The masklike face of the wooden carving is wide-eyed and looks a little shocked to be in the same image with an eruption of flowers. Another detail adds to the mix of humor and intensity: an ashtray with a half-smoked cigarette, with a hint of red glow from having been recently put to the lips of the person whose absence it registers. This is still life, but freighted with both ideas about the idealized origins of African American art and simultaneous presence and absence of the painter’s body and mind.

The artists and critics animated by the new spirit may have differed stylistically, and Du Bois and Locke differed profoundly about the purpose of art. The former embraced its propagandistic value, its power to craft public identity and opinion. The latter argued for art that transcended mere advertising or advocacy for Black people in favor of creativity that grew organically and authentically out of the new spirit, engaged with the world, and ready to depict it with unflinching honesty.

Looking at contemporary art today, it isn’t easy to discern a winner in this argument. But the remarkable thing about the artists on view at the Met is their bravery. In another painting by Hayden that still shocks, “Nous Quatre à Paris,” the artist embraces and accentuates caricature and stereotypes of African physiognomy. But using stereotypes and caricatures doesn’t mean embracing them, and Hayden could be saying any number of things: This is not how I see me, but how you see me; your stereotypes are manifestly ridiculous; by using them, I dismantle their power. It was also a painting made in France, where many Black Americans found a refuge from American racism if not from French racial condescension and colonial attitudes.

Courage and honesty are slightly more complex when it comes to assessing the exhibition. Nowhere in the wall texts is any mention made of “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968,” an infamous 1969 Met exhibition that neglected to include any work by Black artists. (It is discussed in the exhibition catalogue.) That exhibition was one of the first and most important of the cultural battles within the museum sector that continue to this day. While the new exhibition remedies the errors, omissions and egregious erasure of the earlier one, not mentioning this ugly precedent is another kind of erasure, and inexcusable.

But the larger choices and curation are exemplary. The Harlem Renaissance was a moment of volatile creativity that unleashed both joy and pain; the soundtrack was jazz which, if one listens even with the most fitful attention, is music that captures both exuberance and alienation. There was a decided undercurrent of elitism among many of the movement’s leaders, a sense that the equality they sought would be most fully realized when White and Black intellectual and creative leaders were in regular communion. The exhibition doesn’t flinch from those realities.

In 1926, Langston Hughes articulated the call to clarity and honesty: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”

Frequently, throughout the show, you see that call answered, not with self-lacerating criticism or internalized double-consciousness, but with moments of striking transcendence, as if the act of seeing oneself is foundational to creation of identity. Often, this is in self-portraits, including a haunting 1941 watercolor, all in shades of blue, made by Samuel Joseph Brown Jr. Sometimes, it is in portraits of others, especially Beauford Delaney’s 1941 “Dark Rapture (James Baldwin),” in which the gay American author is represented so saturated with color that chromatic energy becomes a metaphor for the unencumbered mind.

Finally, “Harlem Renaissance” also underscores the racial openness common to many of the major figures of the movement, which inspired and engaged people from across the racial spectrum both in the United States and abroad. There were essential figures, like Reiss, who was White; and there was sustained dialogue among White and Black artists, including across the Atlantic Ocean. Removing works by Matisse, Soutine and Munch would have made more room for work by Black artists, but it would have erased an important historic moment in this narrative.

Murrell, the exhibition curator, opened whole new avenues of study when she mounted a 2018 exhibition called “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” which elevated the often anonymous Black figures found in 19th-century painting to a subject of study and interest. This exhibition also opens new doors for study, especially with its final work, Romare Bearden’s 1971 “The Block,” a room-size painted collage on Masonite depicting a street like those found in Harlem.

The Harlem Renaissance was an urban phenomenon, and its leaders were distinctly self-conscious about the city as a site of creative exchange. Now I would love to know how Locke and Du Bois were read outside that context, and what kind of art was made by artists working far from Harlem. And cities change and evolve, and by the time Bearden made his work, the word “urban” was becoming a pejorative among too many Americans. The history of the Harlem Renaissance didn’t end with the Second World War, and while this show hints at how it was processed during the Civil Rights era, that could be its own show, eagerly anticipated.

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 28.

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