CHICAGO: If you want to know more about Archibald Motley, you will want to know about Bronzeville.
Great American modernist painter Archibald Motley loved to walk the streets of Bronzeville, a once-thriving neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. There, he would gather scenes and characters for his paintings.
We visited Bronzeville recently, in anticipation of the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in 20 years, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, opening January 30 at the Nasher Museum. Our guide: scholar Davarian Baldwin, who contributed an essay to the forthcoming Motley exhibition catalogue. Baldwin jumped into a taxi with us on Michigan Avenue and took us south to what was known in the 1920s during the Great Migration as “The Stroll.” Back then, 35th and State streets were a major leisure and entertainment district for African Americans. As Baldwin spoke, Michigan Mile skyscrapers outside the taxi windows gave way to far humbler architecture. “We’re heading south into the area that would later be called Bronzeville, that he represented so beautifully in his paintings,” Baldwin said. “What he called these urban nocturnes, these street scenes, these night scenes.”
African Americans turned segregation into congregation, as historian Earl Lewis put it, Baldwin told us. “They created their own theaters, their own institutions.”
Motley once said he would find a lot of his “race” in these night scenes, and that is what interested him. Today, Chicago’s South Side is still largely an African American community, Baldwin said, although Bronzeville does not exist the way Motley knew it.
“It was a vibrant urban landscape, and I like to call Motley the painter laureate of the black modern city scape,” Baldwin said.
“He really reflected the energy, the dynamism, the action, the pace of black urban living. In the face of real constraints, real racial constraints.”
Look for more Baldwin’s thoughts on Archibald Motley and Bronzeville in a forthcoming video.
ABOVE: Scholar Davarian Baldwin takes us on a taxi tour of Bronzeville, which was a vibrant neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side 50 years ago, during the lifetime of painter Archibald Motley. Photo by J Caldwell.
ABOVE: Artist Archibald Motley most certainly visited this 1932 Art Deco building, the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library. Photo by J Caldwell.
ABOVE: Davarian Baldwin points out some of the still-standing architectural “bones” of Bronzeville. Photo by J Caldwell.
NOTE: Davarian Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In addition to numerous articles and essays, Baldwin is the author of Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2007). He is also coeditor (with Minkah Makalani) of the forthcoming collection Escape from New York: The “Harlem Renaissance” Reconsidered (University of Minnesota Press). Baldwin is currently at work on two new single-authored projects, Land of Darkness: Chicago and the Making of Race in Modern America (forthcoming from Oxford University Press) and UniverCities: How Higher Education Is Transforming Urban America. He also serves as editor of the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: Using the Present to Excavate the Past (Greenwood).