FRIDAY FIELD TRIP: Archibald Motley
STOP PRESS!! You have got to hurry--this week's recommended exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art closes Sunday, January 17.
Perhaps with all the buzz given to the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney, you may have overlooked the exhibition of work by a lesser known, but incredibly talented, modernist Archibald Motley. The Whitney calls him "one of the great visual chroniclers of twentieth-century American life." Motley first became known during the Harlem Renaissance with his nuanced depictions of African-American life and people of color.
When I popped in to the Whitney to see Motley's work, I expected to view images of nightlife and social activities---the Whitney calls him a "Jazz-Age Modernist", after all.
What I didn't expect was Motley's portraits, which are filled with deep pathos, and explore race with an unexpected complexity. He mines the whole phenomenon of people of mixed race, some who are so white, that they may have tried to "pass" as white. I found his portrait entitled "The Octoroon Girl" (an historical term rarely used today that describes a person who is one-eighth black by descent) especially compelling. Her direct, confident gaze belies any supposed uncertainties she may have felt about her origins.
Click on the links in this post if you want to take a virtual field trip of Archibald Motley and the Harlem Renaissance.
Book on My Nightstand
And if you are thinking you simply want to stay home and lose yourself in a great novel, I have the book for you.
We all have experienced the circumstance where once you learn a new vocabulary word, you begin to hear it everywhere. Well such is the case for me and the word "octoroon". Today it is a curious and unfamiliar term, but I recently finished a terrific historical novel where it is used frequently. The book is about the life of the mother of perhaps America's most famous octoroons. Entitled "Sally Hemings," the novel by Barbara Chase-Riboud breathes life into the longstanding gossip that Sally Hemings, herself a quadroon (1/4 black) and one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves and half-sister to his first wife, was Jefferson's mistress for 38 years and fathered six of his children (all octoroons).
Like Motley's female portrait above, it is said that Hemings was so fair that she could pass as white. Back in 1979, when Chase-Riboud's book was first released it generated a firestorm. Jeffersonian scholars where outraged then at even the fictional suggestion the Jefferson engaged in miscegenation. With today's DNA testing, however, the Jefferson/Hemings liaison is a widely accepted fact. Go ahead and dig in. It is a fascinating portrayal of who Sally Hemings could have been, grounded in historical fact and quotes. This one is an oldie but goodie. I am hoping for the movie that was initially blocked due to the original controversy.
Enjoy the weekend.
Images of Motley's paintings by Lynn Byrne.