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Harlem Renaissance Painter Ernest Crichlow


One of the most visceral artists of the Harlem Renaissance has died. Ernest Crichlow never received the adulation given to some of his contemporaries, but Crichlow's work illustrated some of the most poignant themes of black life. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

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ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Ernest Crichlow's Harlem was a luminous tapestry threaded with the creativity of contemporaries like authors Zora Neale Hurston, the flamboyant Josephine Baker and classical jazz composer Duke Ellington.

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KEYES: Crichlow once said that good music influenced his art. From his Brooklyn brownstone in 2003, he told NPR that the 1930s were Harlem's heyday.

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Mr. ERNEST CRICHLOW (Painter): It was very exciting. I think it was a wonderful place, even though it was very hard. It was a rich place to live.

KEYES: Crichlow was born in Brooklyn in 1914 to immigrants from Barbados. He cut his painter's teeth at a Harlem workshop established by the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. He recalled that artists there fed off each other's energy, creating works with a message. One of Crichlow's best-known pieces, "Lovers," a 1938 lithograph, brings many viewers up short when they first see it. An African-American woman struggles desperately against a robed member of the Ku Klux Klan. His striped pants leg shows that he is a businessman. Crichlow said many made the mistake of thinking it was only about rape.

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Mr. CRICHLOW: I felt that this was a statement of the black woman speaking out and crying out and who really represents what's done to the whole black side or the black image of whatever you want to call it. I see her fighting it off, and I see her strong while she's fighting it off. She doesn't seem like a weakling.

KEYES: Crichlow said that lithograph still resonates because relations between blacks and whites are still strained.

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Mr. CRICHLOW: You can feel it when you go on the subway and a person draws up if they've got a pocketbook.

KEYES: Crichlow continued to offer frank commentaries on racial issues in his later works such as 1967's "White Fence," which portrays a group of young African-Americans as outsiders separated from a happy blond girl in the foreground. He said he has always tried to illustrate the joys and struggles of black life, even when the message is hard to hear.

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Mr. CRICHLOW: I've tried all the time to show always the strength of the black woman. But I realize that I sometime have emphasized the fact that the woman seems, in many ways, stronger than the men. The world has made us--forcibly made us stronger than the men. It's sort of hard.

KEYES: Crichlow said he hopes today's black artists continue to inspire each other to raise consciousness with their work.

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Mr. CRICHLOW: Life doesn't stop with you. It carries itself on.

KEYES: In 1980 Crichlow was one of 10 black artists honored by President Jimmy Carter. He died Thursday of heart failure at age 91. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.