The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

ONE
“Selling That Stuff”: Advertising Art
and Early Blues on 78s

Paul Oliver

Blues was the title of a work by Archibald Motley. It was not a piece of advertising art but rather a piece of fine art; an example of a modest but growing revolution in the visual arts of the United States in the early 1920s, which was relatively localized but was historically important and wider in its implications. Motley was among the principal African American painters of the Harlem Renaissance, which took place between the end of World War I and the Great Depression. In fact, it is likely that he painted Blues in Paris, from where several of his canvases associated with the Harlem Renaissance emanated. A number of the artists, including Motley, Aaron Douglas, and Jacob Lawrence, were working in idioms that owed much to the School of Paris, though they were most profoundly influenced by Winold Reiss, an artist of Bavarian extraction who worked in Harlem.

Several of these young black artists were interested in establishing their identities as African American artists by responding to their environments. Sometimes their work was more abstract in its delineation and use of shapes; this particularly applied to Aaron Douglas, whose murals and prints were angular and simplified, as can be seen from his Play de Blues, one of the prints he did for Opportunity magazine in 1926 to accompany poems by Langston Hughes (Figure 1.1). Most of the Renaissance artists occasionally drew inspiration from jazz and other black music, using symbolist, expressionist, or abstract means and motifs to convey their perceptions. (Motley’s Blues was not a depiction of a blues singer, but rather a glimpse of jazz musicians in performance at a dance.)

That the artists found inspiration from jazz was essentially due to the coincidence of the popularizing of the music and its availability on phonograph records at the time, as well as the accessibility (when they could afford the entrance fees) of live performances in the scores of Harlem venues. Whatever the merits of Motley’s Blues as expressionist art may be, it has to be admitted that it conveys relatively little about the music of jazz or, for that matter, of the blues. To quite an

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