Harlem Didn't Only Shuffle; EXHIBITIONS

By Hilton, Tim | The Independent (London, England), June 29, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Harlem Didn't Only Shuffle; EXHIBITIONS


Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)


"Rhapsodies in Black" at the Hayward Gallery is an interesting, frustrating exhibition about a neglected subject. The Harlem Renaissance - that is, the arts made by black people in upper Manhattan in the 1920s - has been much studied recently, but this is the first time that the visual arts in Harlem have been given separate attention. Perhaps this isn't surprising, for the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance were primarily in literature, theatre and jazz. In a less tangible way, a new black self-awareness was also an achievement of the times, and it is this consciousness of black identity that gives life to art that isn't otherwise of great importance.

So it is with the paintings of Archibald J Motley Jnr, who is the discovery of the show and deserves a wider reputation. I knew nothing about him and don't know much more now, since the catalogue of this exhibition fails to give any solid information about the artists on the walls and discusses every aspect of the Harlem Renaissance with the single exception of its visual art. The Hayward ought to document the work it displays. Anyway, I found Motley in Richard Powell's new book Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Thames & Hudson, pounds 7.95) from which we gather that he wasn't from Harlem at all. Motley (1891-1981) came from Chicago and must have been an artist with a wide outlook, for in the late Twenties he was painting not in Harlem but in Paris.

Looking at Motley's Brown Girl After the Bath, his Blues, and his Jockey Club - the club was in Paris and is said by Powell to have been a haunt of "the international art crowd" - I wonder about the nature of his style. Clearly he knew what he was doing and judged his effects. Did he have any professional training? It's not very likely, but there are some sophistications in his manner. One has then to ask whether an independent black painting style could have been created in the 1920s that wasn't amateur, "primitive" or "naive" and at the same time didn't look like successful modern art by white men. Surely this was the crucial question for any black painter of the day, but "Rhapsodies in Black" and its catalogue fail to engage with the issue. There aren't enough artists in the show to give an overall view of Harlem's art - certainly one can't discern a movement in the usual art-historical sense, though the Harlem Renaissance as a whole was obviously a movement of great importance. I suspect that there was a lot of amateur art in Harlem and elsewhere that either hasn't survived or is not considered good enough for a museum exhibition. Charles Alston's Girl in a Red Dress is intriguing because one can't quite tell whether it is by an amateur or not. The lower part of the picture seems unschooled, if that's the right word, while the background has a light modern touch one rarely finds in amateur painting. The hint of Modigliani may be coincidental. I would like to know more about Alston, who is not mentioned in Powell's book.

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