Archibald Motley Jr. brought black life teeming onto canvas

ART REVIEW

December 20, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

For an artist who was a pioneer and champion of the portrayal of black life, Archibald J. Motley Jr. had a somewhat curious life. When his parents moved from his native New Orleans to Chicago in the 1890s, they settled not in a black neighborhood but in largely white Englewood.

His family was Roman Catholic, and he went to a Catholic school. Jontyle Theresa Robinson writes in the catalog of his show currently at Washington's Corcoran Gallery that "all of his schoolmates and playmates were white." Later, he married a white woman.

Born in 1891, he went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914 and received a traditional academic training that would influence his work all his life. Robert B. Harshe, the director of the Art Institute, took a personal interest in him and in the 1920s pushed his work in New York without (at least at first) revealing that Motley was black. The result was a show at the New Gallery in 1928. A statement on the cover of the show's catalog called it "the first one-man exhibition in a New York art gallery of the work of a negro artist" and went on to say that "the invitation to Mr. Motley to show his paintings at the New Gallery was extended prior to any personal knowledge concerning him or his lineage and solely because of his distinction as an artist."

On the occasion of the show, Bessie Bearden, mother of artist Romare Bearden and an influential member of New York's black community, arranged a black-tie party in Motley's honor, inviting some of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Motley didn't go -- perhaps because he didn't have the right clothes, but he seems to have had no great admiration for the Harlem Renaissance. He later said, "There was no Renaissance."

In order to drum up sales from the show, Harshe wrote letters to five of Chicago's wealthiest African-Americans, encouraging them to buy Motley. "The responses," according to Robinson, "were insulting, shocking and distasteful, stating in effect that because he was a white man, Harshe should 'mind his own business'; the five men said they did not require his assistance to help them spend their money."

Motley subsequently criticized blacks for not patronizing African-American artists. But he was also willing to criticize black artists; at least once he refused to show his work with that of other black artists because, he said, "Negroes were putting out such poor work."

So what sort of work was Motley putting out? Oddly enough considering this history, he was certainly one of the first if not the first black artist to paint black urban life in America in all its vitality -- the street life, the night clubs, the music and dancing, the holy rollers and the street-corner preachers, the neon lights and the traffic, the melange of shop fronts, bars and houses in the black section of Chicago known as Bronzeville.

"Saturday Night" (1935) is a good example of Motley's work. It's a crowded nightclub scene, with a bar at the left, complete with spittoon and beefy bartender, his sleeves rolled up. In front of the bar, a dancer with short skirt and long limbs moves among the tables of drinkers, as waiters careen back and forth with trays held at precarious angles and a band plays in the background. Motley gets us into the scene with the device of a seated onlooker whose body comes in from the lower right corner and up toward the dancer in the center. The artist tilts the floor up toward the viewer, pushing the scene at us, and us into it, and cutting off the heads of a table of people in the far background. The scene is filled with energy; we can almost hear the music and the gabble of voices over it.

Crowded street scenes

As "Saturday Night" is a typical interior, "Casey and Mae in the Street" (1948) is one of Motley's typical street scenes. At the center of the action is Casey, a local character carrying on his shoulder one of his performing chickens, this one named Mae West (and the way Motley has painted the chicken it even reminds you a little of Mae West in one of her spangly white gowns). But despite his central position, Casey almost gets lost in this crowded scene with its cast of characters: the sailor and his girlfriend racing along, in contrast to the placid gait of the matronly type with the basketful of groceries hanging from her arm; the fat, bald-headed guy (who appears in a number of

Motley paintings), leaning against a lamppost and smoking a cigar; the cop in the background in front of a barber shop where a man is getting his hair cut; the people seen through the windows of a diner and others looking out from the windows of the buildings at the back as if they wished they were out doing something instead of just looking.

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