Style Analysis of Archibald J. Motley’s “Nightlife” (1943), Essay Example

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Vivid, epic, poignant and romanticized, Nightlife (1943) proved that the arts of early free and slave men and women were not lost but were reborn in the Harlem Renaissance. In this painting, Motley portrays, in vivid and striking colors, scenes from Bronzeville’s nightspots. Nightlife, with its emphasis on the pay of artificial lights on a tableau of brightly dressed characters, reprises the descriptions of the “sublimity” of the Stroll.

In this painting, Motley’s story of the Black Belt moves indoors to showcase the life of the cafes. The patrons of the cafes are either sharing intimate cocktails or dancing furiously to the music of The Stroll. The South Side cabarets, or as Motley portrays them in this painting, are no less crowded than the busy steers. Nightlife’s dynamic composition, strong colors, and echoed shapes create a sense of movement, from the twisting male figure on the bottom left upward diagonally past the dancing people, the rising plumes of smoke and lurching waiter to the frenetic dancers at top right. Precariously balanced trays, raised hands, and an upturned glass give new meaning to the word “Tipsy”.

Figures appear to float against a theatrical pale-rose backdrop, punctuated by light bulbs above and beside bar. Nightlife shows Motley’s ongoing fascination with artificial light. Like his other genre paintings, it stresses mood and scene rather than individual figures, and features are suggested rather than defined. The lively rhythm and upward motion are periodically interrupted. The bald, heavy-set bartender (a figure reappearing in many of Motley’s scenes) slouches into his task of skimming foam from a beer mug.

The compressed objects and figures in this painting, with their flowing contours and the floor tilting almost parallel to the painting’s exterior look, suggest the manipulation of European abstract modernization. The overall rhythmic pattern created by this figure, the complementary lights and dark tones with the prevailing red shade, craft a jazz-like syncopation and frame of mind. Motley excelled in his pictorial record of African-American nightlife. Amidst the crowded cabaret and streets, a figure disengaged from the surrounding social activity conveys a sub-theme about social isolation. He painted an aspect of black life unnoticed by most, yet enjoyed by venturous whites: a black society in the Jazz Age in America.

Besides the contemporary techniques employed to paint Nightlife, this painting represents a group of African-Americans trying to retreat from their times of yore, and live their lives like everybody else and have fun like everyone else on earth. They dance while musical group play song on their trumpets. This painting also exposes a strapping sense of lushness because the African-Americans are wearing stylish suits and clothed well. The bar in this painting explains no connection with the history of slavery or repression, but it appears like these men and women make use of this place to “keep out” inequity. In addition, Motley specifically painted no Whites in this portrait, which also illustrates that he has left inequity out of this place. However, these people seem to put on view that black people can also have fun; they can dance freely, drink, and wear dressing just like whites around. The scene of bar makes these people move out just like whites although once they go away from the bar, they will bear the same difference that remains in the outsider world.

This painting also typified this new cultural consciousness. Motley experimented with composition, color and content to cram his canvas with the sounds and sights of Harlem. He inserted black artists and performers to pay tribute to black accomplishments in music, the fine arts and drama. He expressed the sound and motion of jazz through several techniques, compositions, and colors. He sketched the figures with easy, diagonal shapes and highlighted slanting lines, crafting a good judgment of vibrant motion. Enthralled with both natural and artificial lightning, Motley preferred radiant violet-red tones. The title Nightlife gave him a chance to demonstrate, in his own sayings, “a look of the several shades and colors which exist in such a great diversity” among Afro-Americans in Chicago.

Clearly he is interested in imparting an amusing tale about nightlife on the south side of Chicago. He uses a variety of techniques to prove that this image is not about verisimilitude, but about artistic imagination. He suspends the properties of proportion and gravity in this composition. Similarly, the stylization of the figure suggests generalizing stereotypes more than actual people, and the men’s skin color, embellished with a mixture of deep orange, red, and purple, privileges artistic inventiveness over real life appearances.

Motley’s own statements about his art suggest a desire to render realistically the observed environment along with a desire to transcend the everyday. Motley’s title, Nightlife, refers not only to the narrator in the composition, but also to the artist himself as a creator and manipulator of images. The composition demonstrates how reality is transformed through representation. This represents a plurality of perspectives in terms of spatial organization and theme.

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