Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Figure in an Urban Setting

“I think that every picture should tell a story
and I think if a picture doesn't tell a story then it's not a picture
Archibald Motley

Twenty eight years after determining to become an artist, Archibald Motley became the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition in New York City. The Chicago based Motley was a nine year old when he decided upon becoming a painter.

As he explained in his Smithsonian oral historyI just felt it was the only thing I could do; I couldn't do anything else.”

In 1914, as a 23 year old, Motley became one of the four black students at the Art Institute of Chicago where he embarked upon the traditional formal art education prevalent at the time with its emphasis on portraiture and the nude. But the forward thinking Motley embraced the compositional challenges of multi figure scenes.

As he said “Composition was the thing that I was more interested in than anything else because I felt that I could build up more paintings in composition and more salable things than I could with portraits and nudes… And I found composition got so intriguing, so very interesting to compose something in your mind, your imagination and build it up and make something out of it.”

And it was a premonition that proved to be true. Upon graduation Motley started out painting portraits but eventually switched to chronicling the African-American experience.

About which he told the Smithsonian’s Dennis Barrie “I first started doing portraits as I told you, you know, my grandmother there, my mother, these people that I met on the outside, strangers that I painted, and some friends. Then I found, too, that in the Negro race, or colored race as I call it, they didn't have the money to pay for commissioned portraits. Of course, the white artists had all the white clientele all tied up. They wouldn't come to me, you know, some of these big people that have money, they'd go to their friends, somebody white. So I figured I had learned a heck of a lot about composition. Why not paint compositions and pictures that people will buy regardless of race, color or creed? So it was only that drove me --well, it didn't drive me into painting compositions because I always liked composition. Then I started doing a lot of compositions. I found that they were salable and I didn't have [to employ] a model.”

The success of Motley’s New York exhibition, he sold 22 to the 26 hung works, saw him awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year that allowed Motley to spend all of 1929 in France. Apart from producing 12 paintings whilst in Paris, Motley spent a lot of time at the Louvre studying the European old masters.

About which he said “Oh, I spent so much time there! That was my biggest inspiration. The biggest thing I ever wanted to do in art was to paint like the old masters… You've got to study a painting a long time to realize what the artist really is doing. Light is very, very important. I used to go to the Louvre and study, I studied all the old masters very carefully. You know, what we call "in" painting, the passages of tones.

It was study that served him well as one of the first African-American artists to portray the characters from the diverse racial backgrounds and social classes that people America’s Black urban neighborhoods.

As he has said "They're not all the same color, they're not all black, they're not all, as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they're not all brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that's hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics."

New York’s Whitney Museum has the exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist on show until the 17th of January next year.

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