Down-Home and Uptown: Archibald Motley, Jr. and the Evolution of African-American Art

Article excerpt

The first time I ever attended a house party featuring live music was in 1954 at the home of a high school acquaintance who lived near Greensboro, in south-central Alabama. The weather was warm, and the throng of partygoers had extended their dancing and revelry beyond the porch out into the yard. Excited by this minor spectacle, I paid the ten-cent "donation," which was half the cost of admission for a balcony seat at the segregated local movie theater, and entered the house. There a lone bluesman was singing spiritedly and playing his guitar with force and assurance, captivating his audience with musical rhythms and unforget-tably saucy lyrics. A few years later I would find a visual analogue to the experience of a Southern black house party in the paintings of Archibald J. Motley, Jr.

No one captured visually the essence of African-American life in the 1920s and 1930s as vividly or faithfully as did Archibald Motley. His was an insider's view: deftly painted portraits, passionate scenes of nightlife, haunting images of African legends, and brilliantly pictorial canvases that portrayed blacks, in the words of the Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Langston Hughes, as "beautiful" and "ugly too." Unlike any other twentieth-century American artist, Motley achieved in his work a unique synthesis of the down-home blues idiom, in all its narrative dimensions, with the evocative and sophisticated urban expressions of jazz. He did this not by sanitizing his subjects or by presenting grotesque stereotypes. Instead, he created authentic images of African-American folk, depicting them, as his biographer Jontyle Theresa Robinson notes, "not as a critic or moralist, but as a recorder reporting with eyes and brush the diversity and universality of the Black experience."

Motley was born in New Orleans on October 7, 1891, to Archibald John and Mary F. Motley. When he was two the family moved to St. Louis, then to Buffalo, and settled finally in the quiet community of Englewood on Chicago's South Side. There Motley grew up in an ethnically and racially tolerant environment. Although he did not have any sustained contact with other blacks in Englewood, summers spent in the South visiting relatives served to ground him in the Creole, African, and African-American traditions that long fascinated him as an artist.

By the time he was in the fifth grade Motley was recognized as having considerable drawing ability. After graduating from Englewood High School, he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914. As a young art student he often went to taverns and hangouts frequented by urban blacks to sketch the emerging jazz and blues cultures. He completed his studies at the institute in 1918, and in 1924 married his secret high school sweetheart, a young woman of German ancestry, Edith Granzo. In 1933 their only child, Archibald J. Motley III, was born.

Motley was among the few artists of the 1920s who consistently depicted African-Americans in a positive manner. Paintings of his such as The Plotters, Black Belt, and Barbecue captured the energy and character of black urban life. In 1928 the New Gallery in New York City gave Motley an exhibition. Nearly all the paintings sold, an unprecedented success for a black artist of the time in a commercial gallery. Indeed, having any gallery exhibition at all was extremely rare for black artists. Only Henry Ossawa Tanner preceded Motley in this respect.

Motley's career reached a high-water mark when his oil Mending Socks (1924) was voted the most popular painting in an exhibition at the Newark Museum in 1927. In 1929 the artist won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study for a full year in Paris, where his commitment to depicting his people with honesty and integrity was confirmed in such compositions as Blues (1929), which depicts a nightclub crowded with expatriate Africans and West Indians. Upon returning to Chicago, Motley produced a body of work that stood to become a visual manifesto for the musical culture of the black urban experience, especially that of Chicago's Black Belt. …