Today marks the beginning of a special Twitter celebration. Monday is the official kickoff applauding those peculiar institutions in a lovely tribute titled #MuseumWeek. Well, as a proud museum nerd (all deference to the awesome @MuseumNerd, of course), I couldn’t miss an opportunity to fly the flag in salute. I thought “Why not shine a light on my most recent trip to see an artist’s work that’s become a staple of the American museum community?”
I’m speaking of none other than the brilliant Archibald J. Motley and the current exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. With great pleasure, I ventured north of the Hoosier state once again to drink from the culture cup that is Chicago’s amazing art scene. There, I learned more about the wonderful life, talent and technique of this great interpreter of the Jazz Age.
Archibald Motley may not be the household name children learn about through pop culture references in TV and film, but his work helped shape how many of us now view that magical era, the Harlem Renaissance. For many, that movement and its amazing legacy has kept us enamored for almost a century, and we owe much of that appreciation to artists like Motley who captured the scene with such vivacity and honesty that we still feel its impact today.
Despite never residing in New York’s Harlem community, Motley felt the pull of the movement in Chicago. Not taking anything away from the much-heralded Harlem devotees, Motley fed his love of the Jazz Age — warts and all — through the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville. There, he took in the nightlife, daily minutiae and unique characteristics and transferred them to canvas with paintbrush and passion.
The traveling Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist exhibit takes us through his early period where he earned his living as a portraitist. With women serving as his primary subjects, you can see Motley’s singular ability to capture details that set the tone and perspective for the audience, not just the woman posing for the painting. You feel as if you’re invited into their space and asked to step closer to appreciate the authenticity of the moment.
As you make your way around the open gallery space, you quickly understand Motley’s natural progression in the art world. He was never one of the great “starving artists” who struggled for recognition in a crowded playing field. Between private and public patrons and investors, he managed to support himself on his art alone, but you never get the sense that he took any of that for granted.
It’s clear that his devotion to living up to the expectations of the art scene never conflicted with his respect for seeing people as fully developed human beings. An outsider might see his lanky street preacher or rotund poker game player as caricatures, but Motley’s attention to detail certainly never portrays them as such. For instance, regardless of the number of Black figures in his paintings, he never gives two people the same exact complexion. Every figure is their own special shade of brown. That’s a wonderful tribute to the variety and complexity of skin tones that exist throughout the African Diaspora.
Some have argued that Motley opened a door for voyeurs to see the Black community as nothing more than revelers without any sign of despair or evidence of life lived in fear. But I would argue that Motley does a wonderful job of showcasing the surface and depth of Black life during the Jazz Age by shining a light on what was. Here lied a community that did not wallow in the anguish and distress of inequality, injustice and Depression. The citizens of Bronzeville, Harlem, small town Mexico (where Motley traveled with his nephew, author Willard Motley) and all points in between had to make a way for themselves and embrace the joys of life in the moment, for they knew it may not last long.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Feel free to journey to this exceptional exhibit to see for yourself. Running from now through August 31st, the Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist exhibit includes more than 35 works by this artistic virtuoso. In addition to the exhibit itself, the Chicago Cultural Center is hosting 3 months of special programming to complement Motley’s work. From film screenings like the acclaimed short St. Louis Blues to concerts by local musicians like Tomeka Reid to symposia discussions on the artist’s relationship with the city of Chicago, you can truly immerse yourself in Motley’s world.
Below are a just handful of images I garnered during my trip to the gallery exhibition. Trust me when I say my photos do not do the works of art justice. As usual, please click on the photos to see a larger, more detailed version of the image.
“Roadside Conference” came about during Motley’s trip to Mexico to visit his nephew, Willard. As you can see, he used his sketchbook to capture many elements of the scene, but only chose to paint one small section.
Painted in 1934, “The Boys in the Back Room (Card Players)” reworked a similar theme from another painting called “The Plotters.” In each, Motley captures the variety of nightlife in Bronzeville in authentic tones.
“Another Mexican Baby” was painted in 1952 on a large woven mat made of petate grass, a source easy to find during his time in Mexico. The subject of the painting is a reflection of the serious social realism art popular in Mexico during that era.