Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

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This audio guide highlights selected works in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. Curators Richard J. Powell, Carter Foster, and others provide additional commentary.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, 1929

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RICHARD POWELL: Motley is probably best known for this painting, Blues. The painting was created in 1929. Archibald Motley was the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, one of the first African American artists to get that honorific award. He uses his fellowship to go to Paris. He spends 1929 and the early, early bits of 1930 in Paris.

NARRATOR: Paris may have been the capital of modernism in the 1920s—in no small part due to the influence of African American musicians and performers like Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet. This was fertile territory for Motley. Here, he depicts a real nightclub.

RICHARD POWELL: Le Bal Negre was a popular West Indian cabaret in the fifteenth arrondissement in Paris. This was a multiracial kind of place. Paris had that reputation for not having the same kind of restrictions on blacks and whites fraternizing with one another.

When you look at this painting, you're struck automatically by the density of it, how Motley has chosen to push and to collapse so much within the four sides of the composition. But Motley does this in a very, very sophisticated way so that bodies seem to create patterns and rhythms across the expanse of the composition. Musicians seem to echo and repeat their body motifs. In doing that, Motley is creating rhythm within the picture itself.

RICHARD POWELL: Motley is probably best known for this painting, Blues. The painting was created in 1929. Archibald Motley was the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, one of the first African American artists to get that honorific award. He uses his fellowship to go to Paris. He spends 1929 and the early, early bits of 1930 in Paris.

NARRATOR: Paris may have been the capital of modernism in the 1920s—in no small part due to the influence of African American musicians and performers like Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet. This was fertile territory for Motley. Here, he depicts a real nightclub.

RICHARD POWELL: Le Bal Negre was a popular West Indian cabaret in the fifteenth arrondissement in Paris. This was a multiracial kind of place. Paris had that reputation for not having the same kind of restrictions on blacks and whites fraternizing with one another.

When you look at this painting, you're struck automatically by the density of it, how Motley has chosen to push and to collapse so much within the four sides of the composition. But Motley does this in a very, very sophisticated way so that bodies seem to create patterns and rhythms across the expanse of the composition. Musicians seem to echo and repeat their body motifs. In doing that, Motley is creating rhythm within the picture itself.


Archibald J. Motley Jr., _Blues_, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 x 42 in. (91.4 x 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy the Chicago History Museum. © Valerie Gerrard Browne