Historically, the black body has found itself entangled in the matrix of desire, control, revulsion and resistance under the historical phenomenon that is known as the trans-atlantic slave trade, black men and women were transported off the Gold Coast of Africa to the Americas as well as Europe and its various colonies with the aim of using them as cheap labour on plantations. Plantation slavery demanded tremendous physical exertion on the part of the slave, and the black body was seen as a carrier of the hallowed promise of human industry. The black body came to be treated as an object deemed fit to perform menial tasks on the field, and was divested of any subjectivity.
Although slavery ended, and free Africans gained citizenship and constitutional rights over the course of time, the black body had already been rendered as the Other in the white imagination through exoticised portrayals in paintings and other media. This sort of representation prevented the attribution of personhood to the black body, relegating it to a generic racial type such as ‘negro’ or ‘mulatresse’ in place of actual names. The exhibition at Musée d’Orsay revisits these historical representations through the black models who worked in the Parisian salons of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Obscured in the historical canon, the exhibition seeks out concrete identities, highlighting the black models who posed as sitters for artists, while subsequently tracing the rise of black artists in modernist history. In scope, the exhibition spans nearly two centuries following the French Revolution up until the time between the two World Wars. While documenting the increased presence of black models in artists’ studios in post-abolition Paris, the exhibition also explores revelatory trans-atlantic connections, such as the Harlem Renaissance in New York.
Slavery was abolished in France by a decree in 1794 only to be re-instated by Napolean Bonaparte in 1802. The institution was definitively abolished in 1815, but it was not until the Restoration that this was effectively implemented. The most prominent work of study in the exhibition is Edouard Manet’s Olympia, which caused a scandal in the art world on its presentation at the 1865 Salon due to its unapologetic portrayal of a (non-idealised) nude prostitute. This white subject is accompanied by a black maid in a deferential pose; the latter figure has been historically obscured from serious study. The subject became the target of some aggressive satirical cartoons and has, been discovered to be based on a model named Laure, who also posed for some of Manet’s other paintings. Laure’s trace can be found in Manet’s notebook as well as in the land registry property ledger cited at an address that reveals her humble social stature and meagre financial means at the time. Laure’s invisibility was, in fact, the subject of extensive study in co-curator Denise Murrell’s PhD dissertation at Columbia University and subsequently, the seed for this exhibition. Laure’s importance in a painting as a working-class woman points to the entry of black people into France’s economy of wage labour as well as the visual vocabulary of French art in the 1860s. The excavation of Laure’s identity has resulted in a series of contemporary iterations, amongst which is American artist Larry Rivers’ Olympia in Black Face (1970). This work shifts Manet’s frame of reference and transposes as well as duplicates the figures in the composition (including the cat on the periphery of the original). The systematic reciprocity of blackness and whiteness in the work levels the figures in how the spectatorial gaze is distributed, thus transforming Laure’s profile from the original.
The French Revolution also facilitated the emergence of portraits of emancipated slaves such as Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress (later changed to Portrait of a Black Woman), painted in celebration of the first abolition of slavery in 1794. Rechristened as Portrait of Madeleine, this painting from 1800 shows a black woman in a pose reminiscent of a high-society woman, her bared breast pointing to her former servitude. The subject- now discovered to be the eponymous Madeleine, was brought to France from the island of Guadeloupe by the artist’s brother-in-law as a servant. This points to a complex, hierarchical relationship between the artist and her sitter/ the colonizer and the colonized, where the model is resigned to her assigned role as a slave/servant, and thus denied complete agency. So despite its subversive feminist appeal, the painting enacted and sustained a racist dualism through the model’s anonymity. But the restitution of Madeleine’s name in the title beats taxonomy with subjectivity as the organizing element of visual inquiry.
This painting is displayed alongside others that focus on individual models who posed for artists that used their anatomical features for experiments in drawing and paint. One of the most well-known professional models of the 19th century was Joseph. Originally from Saint-Dominigue (now Haiti), he began as part of an acrobat troupe and was spotted by artist and abolitionist Theodore Géricault who used him as a model for the painting, The Raft of the Medusa (where a black man is erected as a hero in history following the ill-fated colonial expedition of the frigate Medusa). Joseph was subsequently hired by the Ecole des beaux-arts from 1832 to 1835 as a professional model. This institution acted as a major source of archival material for the exhibition, especially a registry dating from the 20th century that contains the names, addresses and physical descriptions of models proposing their services.
When the United States joined the War in 1917, contingents of African-American soldiers entered the trenches and brought with them a new kind of music - jazz. During the 1930s, this new black community transformed Paris and soon, a new concept emerged: negritude. Penned by poets such as Aimé Césare, Sédar Senghor and Léon Gontran Damas, the concept developed to mean an affirmation of black identity and culture which resounded with the Harlem Renaissance or the resurgence of Afro-American culture in New York. The Harlem Reniassance caught the attention of artist Henri Matisse. At this point, intellectuals such as Alain Locke (author of The New Negro, 1925) and musicians such as Loius Armstrong and Billie Holiday were championing modern urban black culture. Matisse, who had steeped himself in jazz, frequented the clubs of Harlem. Jazz rhythms, along with his longstanding preoccupation with Tahitian colours and plants, informed his last works.
The exhibition also focuses on other black artists who rose to prominence during this era. Among them was Alexandre Dumas, whose paternal grandmother was a freed slave from Saint-Domingue. While portraits ofDumasweretaken by leading photographers of the day like Nadar and Gustave Le Gray, he was also the subject of racist caricatures in the press, many of them displayed in the exhibition. The Parisian stage and circus also exerted a powerful allure for black artists born in America in the late 19th century. Posters and articles abounded in such representations and captured many artists’ imagination, including Edgar Degas’, who captured acrobat Miss Lala in a challenging aerial act in a drawing. Another artist who merits mention is the clown Rafael from Havana; adopting the pseudonym Chocolat, he played the traditional auguste role- the foil to Footit’s tyrannical whiteface clown. The duo inspired several works by Toulouse-Lautrec and were filmed by the Lumière Brothers in 1900. Dancer Josephine Baker, who also arrived from the United States, rose to fame with her famous “savage dance”. With her performances, Baker transcended the racial stereotypes with which she was initially associated, and epitomized modernity in the 1950s as she came to be a civil rights activist and member of the French Resistance.
The exhibition is extended by a project titled ‘Some Black Parisians’ realized by Glenn Ligon. It consists of twelve large-scale proper nouns in neon typeface that highlight the names of the models, performers and writers who appear in important French works of art spanning the said period, including the ones discussed above. Visible from many vantage points in the museum, the prominence of the names points to an attempt at institutional legibility of black Parisians within the history of art. In addition to these names, the words nom inconnu appear at the top of one of the towers, acknowledging the still-anonymous.
The exhibition reforms the spectatorial gaze by ascribing names and addresses to hitherto unidentified models. In tracing the identities of the subjects and temporarily re-naming canonical works of art, the exhibition reveals the impotence of the former nomenclature, and acts to decolonize the historical representation of black models and artists through a revisionist lens. It records the evolution of racial nomenclature, recording and encouraging revision of nineteenth century terms as acts of critique. Although a temporary exhibition thematically dedicated to this revival mission, the elaborate efforts made in preparation for it are symptomatic of a larger, global, contemporary drive to excavate micro-histories otherwise eclipsed by hegemonic readings of human history.
‘Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse’ curated by Cécile Debray, Stéphane Guégan, Denise Murrell, and Isolde Pludermacher at Musée d’Orsay, Paris