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A week ago, 12 Years A Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the first time in the history of the Oscars that the top prize went to a film made by a black director. Recently, too, New York voters elected a white man who is married to a black woman; now the city’s “first family” vividly resembles the richly varied complexion of its multiracial, multiethnic population.
Against the backdrop of such belated examples of race-related “progress,” it is illuminating to flip through the pages of American cultural history and discover that almost a century ago, a black, classically trained modern artist, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., was using paint on canvas to address such nuanced subjects as the dignity of mixed-race persons and the skin-tone-based sensitivities that prevailed among his own people.
In Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, an exhibition on view at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, the life story and achievements of this modernist innovator are receiving some much-deserved attention. Organized by Duke art history professor Richard J. Powell, whose book, Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames and Hudson, 1997; reissued as Black Art: A Cultural History, 2002), has become a standard text in its field, the Nasher exhibition will remain on view through May 11 before embarking on a US tour that will end in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art late next year.
Motley (1891–1981), who is still not widely known today, was born in New Orleans and moved with his parents to Chicago when he was an infant. His father worked as a Pullman railway-carriage porter. After declining a scholarship to study architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute, Archibald was accepted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where, it is interesting to note, the Armour Institute’s president paid his first-year tuition fees). Motley, whose teachers included the realist painter George Bellows, went on to produce a technically inventive body of work that assimilated various stylistic developments of early-20th-century modern art.
The comprehensive Motley survey Powell and his collaborators have assembled is not the first one ever. In 1991, a similar exhibition opened at the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum). That presentation traveled to high-profile venues in other cities, including the Studio Museum in Harlem. It featured many of Motley’s emblematic canvases, as does the exhibition at Duke. However, Powell’s examination of Motley’s work is an exemplary exercise in revisionist art history that seeks nothing less than to secure for its subject an overdue, more prominent place in America’s modern-art canon.
In an interview at the Nasher, Powell explained, “In part we’d like to show that Motley was ahead of his time, and that his work is relevant to our world today, for through it he addressed some complex themes that may still be complex and difficult for some people to easily grasp.”
Powell’s implication is that Motley’s ability to view the world around him from simultaneously different vantage points and to embrace contradictions was somehow postmodernist avant la lettre. Powell pointed out, “Motley came from a part of the country, New Orleans, where mixed-race people were not uncommon. Comprehending someone whose racial identity was mixed wasn’t so hard for him but he was color-struck; he was interested in this subject and gravitated toward people like ‘the octoroon girl,’ whom he found in an A&P supermarket and who became one of his sitters.”
Powell noted that Motley was not just keenly aware of how a person’s skin color could influence his or her place in society — and the privileges or prejudices that accompany it — but like other artists and intellectuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s (or “New Negro Movement,” as it was known at the time), he was also interested in the multidimensional nature of black racial identity and the forms of social and cultural expression that were associated with it.
Some historians have described the light-skinned Motley, whose own ancestry was African, European and Native American, as someone who throughout his life felt unsettled about his own racial identity. As Powell sees it, the artist “instinctively understood that the issue of racial identity was complex” and therefore hard to codify, “because in his own case it was, too.” In other ways, Powell added, Motley’s life was not exactly simple or conventional, and he had to emotionally and psychologically process its vicissitudes.
For example, when Archibald was around 18 years old, his younger sister bore an out-of-wedlock child, Willard, whom Motley’s parents brought up as their own son. His mother and father maintained that fiction until Willard was 12, but even after they revealed the boy’s actual relationship to his “sister” and “brother,” the Motleys continued playing their respective, already established roles within the family. If that dynamic were not challenging enough, in 1924 Archibald married his high school sweetheart, Edith Granzo, the white daughter of German-Lutheran immigrants, who opposed the couple’s interracial marriage. Archibald (whose family was Roman Catholic) and Edith had a son, Archibald J. Motley III, or “Archie,” who appeared to be white.
Adding to the complexity, Motley’s “brother”/nephew, Willard, was homosexual and politically leftist, but despite the racial, sexual and political obstacles he faced in a conservative society, he grew up to be remarkably accomplished, publishing four novels (the first of which, Knock On Any Door , about an Italian-American altar boy who becomes a criminal, was made into a Hollywood movie starring Humphrey Bogart). Willard was also friendly with the white writer-photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), the Iowa-born homosexual, or perhaps bisexual, New York-based pen pal of Gertrude Stein who became a champion of countless Harlem Renaissance-era black musicians, writers and performers. After his second novel came out, Willard moved to Mexico, where Archibald visited him numerous times, and died there in 1965.
The Nasher exhibition opens with a gallery full of stunning portraits in which Motley retooled a traditional artistic genre and its familiar, “permissible” content — stolid white burghers or high-society figures — to yield works that may be viewed as presaging some of postmodernism’s “recontextualizing strategies.” In them, Motley depicts black and mixed-race sitters in, as Powell put it, “an in-your-face manner” that unabashedly captures their dignity as individuals and recognizes their legitimacy as subjects for fine art.
Motley’s oil-on-canvas masterpieces in this genre include, among others, “Portrait of My Mother” (1919), an essay in expertly modulated earth tones, whose palette serves as a metaphor for the mixed racial background of its subject, a woman who grew up on a Louisiana plantation and whose father was white. Also on view are “Mulatress With Figurine and Dutch Seascape” (1920), the artist’s take on the “tragic mulatta” theme, with its focus on mixed-race people who neither fit in neatly with the “white world” or the “black world.” Still, the objects surrounding Motley’s sitter suggest that, for all her real or imagined suffering, she was a woman of style and modest erudition.
In 1930, Motley painted his wife in the nude with, as Powell points out, the precision of the Neue Sachlichkeit style that had been practiced in Germany during the 1920s. He also portrayed her as elegantly clothed and confident, with a fox stole wrapped around her neck. In both “Self-portrait (Myself At Work)” (1933) and “Brown Girl After the Bath” (1931), the artist’s subjects confront the viewer with a who’s-zoomin’-who reverse gaze. “Brown Girl” is especially mysterious. Who is this nude young woman at her dressing table, who seems to be looking both at and beyond herself in the mirror? (Oddly, her reflected image is not exactly that of the person seated in front of it. While it is the same woman, the pose of the person in the mirror is slightly different.)
In 1928, Motley became the first “negro artist […] in the annals of the American school of painting” to have a solo exhibition at a gallery in New York, as a pamphlet from that event at Manhattan’s New Gallery stated. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to live and work for a year in Paris, where he made forays into that city’s world of cafés and music clubs but rarely mingled with other artists. Back in Chicago, in subsequent decades, Motley employed an outrageous palette of electric blues, acid greens, hot pinks and dark purples in scenes of everyday life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. He painted their nightclubs, pool halls, gambling dens and church revival meetings.
The compositions of many of his paintings, such as those of “Barbecue” (1960) or “Hot Rhythm” (1961), became dynamic, almost musical, but in them he traded the precision of his earlier portraits for more stylized, almost cartoonish modes of rendering his subjects with a kind of visual shorthand. Mouths became red ovals filled with simple white strokes representing teeth; daubs of white paint became beady eyes.
After his wife died in 1948, Motley began working for a manufacturer of hand-painted shower curtains in order to support his mother and son. Some of the paintings he made during his Mexico junkets of the 1950s and 1960s reflect the thrust and harmony of the Mexican muralists’ compositions, but he also produced some tourist-kitsch toss-offs and some oddball gems, like “After Fiesta, Remorse, Siesta” (1959–60), which shows a naked woman seated at a piano in a deserted, after-hours nightclub.
If Motley brought keen observation, emotional engagement and, as Powell suggests, a natural sense of understanding to the cacophony of Chicago street life and the multifaceted aspects of a single sitter’s identity — never mind that of an entire people — it also appears that a consistent, middle-class-grounded sense of self-inspection was an integral part of his thinking. Powell’s research shows that Motley, when he wanted to, could party in Paris and bordello-hop in Mexico with gusto, but that he was also earnest about his work. The artist and art historian James A. Porter (1905–70), who helped establish the field of African-American art history, once wrote that Motley’s “interpretation of the swaggering, picaresque humor of the scenes [he depicts] has virtually no intent to caricature.”
In an undated, mid-20th-century text of his own, Motley noted:
The Negro poet portrays our group in poems, the Negro musician portrays our group in jazz, the Negro actor portrays our group generally with a touch of comedy, hilarity dancing and song. […] All of these […] portrayals are serious, original interpretations of the Negro. There is nothing borrowed, nothing copied… […] So why should the Negro painter, the Negro sculptor mimic that which the white man is doing, when he has such an enormous colossal field practically all his own; portraying his people, historically, dramatically, hilariously, but honestly?
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist continues at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (2001 Campus Drive, Durham, North Carolina) through May 11.