Mind Theater

The Harlem Renaissance's Greatest Artist | Video Essay

May 30, 2022 Ayo Akingbade Episode 67
Mind Theater
The Harlem Renaissance's Greatest Artist | Video Essay
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Show Notes Transcript
  1. Who’s the first artist that comes to mind when you think about the Harlem Renaissance? Maybe it’s Jacob Lawrence and his dynamic approach to cubism, the colorful geometry he captured in his paintings, maybe it's Aaron Douglass and his large towering silhouette murals immersed in history, or maybe it’s Augusta Savage and her imposing yet beautiful plaster sculptures that give the likes of bronze and marble a run for their money. All are exceptional choices but in my opinion there’s no greater artist that represents this period of revitalized african-american art than Archibald Motley Jr. The painter not even from Harlem. Or, New York at all for that matter.
  2. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in Chicago he received higher education at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. An experience defined by the clash between the classical training he received at the conservative-bent university and his more modernist realist approach to art, influenced by the likes of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. A trait identifiable in the way he treats light and skin tone within his pieces. Motley’s style wasn’t just influenced by the Old Masters though, when looking at his paintings there’s a sense of space and rhythm that reveal a sensibility that’s unmistakably modern. His canvases aren’t just infused by jazz, they are jazz. Sporadic and brash, inviting and noisy all at the same time. What we bear witness to in the many night street, and jazz club scenes he depicted in his work is an artist intent on capturing the vibrant energy of Chicago city night life, its streets and stores, its music, and its people.
  3. What’s striking about his tableaus is the way he goes about capturing form and movement. The figures who occupy the spaces are often depicted in evocative, expressionistic poses. Overlapping bodies crammed chaotically around and over top of one another. Some figures contemplate languidly on the fringes, while others dash across the scene, eager to get to the next bar or club that’s invariably just around the corner. The visual noise his canvases invite might otherwise distract you, were it not for Motley’s warm almost hazy use of color and shading that grounds them, bringing the eccentric back down to reality, at least partially. In other canvases, however, he gives you no such room for relief, often filling the space with a rush of a single dominating color that makes its influence known across every corner of the piece; it's astonishing but also overwhelming. His paintings don't just dazzle, they explode.
  4. One of his most famous works “Street Scene Chicago” illustrates this relationship perfectly. There’s so many things that jump out to me right away, the band of jazz trumpet players contorting their horns in various positions, the dapper dressed gentleman and elegant ladies strolling by throughout the scene, a woman singing out loud and gesturing upwards to the heavens, in the foreground a white cop turns his face away from the crowd, in an expression that I read as malice or disgust or less sternly, apathy, take your pick. In a single staggering image Motley depicts both the elegance and the eclectic noisiness of the jazz infused south side of chicago, and he would go on to do it again and again. From Gettin’ Religion to Bronzeville by Night, his paintings serve as a black urban tapestry that works to capture the joy of African American life in his city but also its pain, a framework of living that African Americans are entirely all too familiar with. Back to Street Scene Chicago.
  5. As I mentioned before it’s loud and busy, and like most of Motley’s canvases it’s filled with a level of detail that rewards the patient viewer. A quick cursory look and you might miss the woman panhandling on the right, or the dog here at the bottom. Your eyes can’t help but dance around his paintings, studying each and every pose, every action, every reaction, every individual face and expression. 
  6. Do this with enough of his works however, and you might start to notice something. One thing that Motley didn’t shy away from in his art was his use of caricature. Many of the figures depicted in Motley’s paintings bear exaggerated facial features that resemble minstrel figures, seemingly drawing from America’s all too recent and continual racist past including racist imagery and iconography. Some faces are blurred altogether. According to Motley though his depictions weren’t made with intent to stereotype, often using this kind of imagery to “increase the appeal and accessibility to his crowds.” For him, capturing blackness in his art involved conveying the large range of possibilities for blackness, a task he aimed to do with genuine intent. We see this less explicitly in the vast array of skin colors that appear in Motley’s paintings, the different shades of black and even white he gives his figures access to. By painting the differences in skin tones Motley sought to highlight the differences in personality of his subjects. Asking his white viewers in particular not to view African-Americans through the lens of stereotyped features but as individuals, all deserving to be treated with the same respect regardless of how closely or not they fit the pre-conceived stereotype.
  7. I think a more generous reading of his stylistic complexity allows his figures to be seen as an attempt at artistic reclamation. By painting his figures in this way he casts their facial features in an entirely new light, attempting to separate their racially charged history from the beauty he sees in them, juxtaposed to the other faces within his paintings. Whether or not he accomplished this with his portrayal of mostly dark skinned individuals is up for you to decide.
  8. I think it’s worth noting at this point how Archibald battled with and depicted his own self identity in his pieces as a biracial man. Growing up in Chicago he lived in a predominantly white neighborhood and attended predominantly white schools. This disconnection from african-american culture made him feel at odds with his relationship to blackness and an outsider to his community. I think that’s why his paintings so often take a complex and all-encompassing approach to depicting skin color. His figures don’t just reflect diversity of races but diversity within a race as a whole. His loud boisterous canvas’ make quite the impression in this regard, they depict blackness as multidimensional, concerned with encapsulating the perspectives of those who deviate from stereotypes as much as those who embrace them, in a single emphatic statement.
  9. And then you see one of his portraits. The difference is immediately apparent and understood. Motley leaves everything laid bare. It’s so crystal clear. Where his tableaus featured sprawling undercity landscapes and jazz ridden chaotic interiors filled with a thousand faces that could be anyones, his portraits are quiet and intimate, they’re vulnerable at times maybe even too much for a viewer who’s gotten used to the general sensibilities of his street scenes. In his portraits his subjects are more than just figures, they’re people. Real breathing people with lives outside of his canvas’ narrative. In fact he often painted the people closest to him in this fashion, including his mother and grandmother. This portrait is one of my favorites. In it you’re made privy to decades of this person’s history, of her life. To her pain as a former slave but also the wisdom and endurance she's retained in her waning years. The commentary it makes on the passage of time is infused into every facet of the portrait, from her hands to her eyes, that maintain a sorrowful resilience. Motley dignifies her further by painting her dressed in white, a color usually reserved for portraits of white women of privilege during this time period.
  10. On the topic of race, just like his street scenes, he utilized portraits to make analysis and commentary on race. Take his 1925 painting Octoroon Girl, for example. An octoroon is a derogatory dated term for a person who is one-eight black by descent. This painting contains an entire semester’s worth of lessons on class, racial identity, passing, and conforming to white aesthetic ideals and just like the painting of his grandmother it’s the little details that tell the story. From her jewelry laid over the scarlet red collar of her black velvet dress, to her gloves clasped in the hands of her well manicured nails, to her expression that is soft, composed, and serene. Her elegance is put on display in a way that reveals her utmost confidence as well as her higher social standing. Octoroon Girl is a portrait that comments not just on the historical implications of conforming to white ideals and aesthetics but also comments on Motley’s own relationship to race and class, as an affluent artist whose paintings often served as windows into a black urban community that he was never truly a part of. Octoroon Girl breaks that divide, fulfilling Motley’s desire to create an image of accomplished blacks removed from stereotype, throwing into question his white audience’s own notions about racial identity and status. There’s no doubt he’s placed traces of his own experience in this piece. For Motley “portraits expose a certain transparency of truth of the internal self.” In this case not just the subject’s truth but the artist’s truth as well.
  11. I think that’s what makes Motley’s work so profoundly powerful to me. What I see in his art is an artist that holds a double edged sword of responsibility. I see someone who understands the role of the artist to capture and document their own personal truths, as well as the heavy weight of the responsibility in capturing the truths of the many who look just like them. Moreover he understands the many facets of the black American experience and the level of grace required to truly depict its complexities. You need the loud, the boisterous, the jazz, but also the quiet and contemplative. And both scenes contain their own metaphysical truth about black identity, a truth capable of conveying both its triumphs and its trauma. To see yourself in the art is one thing but to know that there’s an artist who understands you, who sees your individuality past the surface level is what makes art like Motley’s truly beautiful. And for all his attention to detail it’s clearly a beauty that’s not just skin deep.
  12. Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as my other content follow mindtheaterpod on twitter, instagram, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support, the ko-fi link is in the shownotes. Thanks for listening, i’ll catch ya next time.