The Art Lawyer’s Diary April 18, 2019
Dr. Denise Murrell Takes It to the Temple of Modernity and Beyond: The Black Model from Géricault to Matisse at Musee d’Orsay
Welcome to the Hoffman Law Firm’s first incarnation of The Art Lawyer’s Diary, in newsletter format: an art world insider’s guide to navigate the implications of current cases and legal developments in art law as they specifically relate to artists, collectors, galleries and museums as well as the implications of current exhibitions and events at the intersection of art, law, politics, and culture for the art world and beyond. We invite you to read our newsletter as well as visit our new website.
Barbara Hoffman at the Musee d’Orsay
It is fitting that this inaugural newsletter is inspired by my recent trip to Paris for my friend, Ford Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Scholar Denise Murrell’s exhibition opening at the Musee d’Orsay – The Black Model from Gericault to Matisse. By way of background as a young law professor, I was a tangential member of the Conference on Critical Legal Studies (CLS) a group of legal scholars founded in 1977. Most of us had been involved as law students with the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests, and the political, legal and cultural challenges to authority that characterized that period. How could law be so tilted to favor the powerful, given the prevailing explanations of law as either democratically chosen or the result of impartial judicial reasoning from neutral principles? Critical legal scholarship provided theories to explain how legal decisions reflect cultural and political values that shift over time and that apparently neutral language and institutions, operated through law, mask relationships of power and control.
Présidente des Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Laurence des Cars and her curatorial team join Murrell to focus on art history as a mirror of the political, legal, social, and cultural events of the time. Concentrating on the period from the French Revolution to the mid twentieth century in France, this ground breaking exhibition adopts a cross-disciplinary approach covering the history of art, aesthetics, history of ideas, and anthropology to show how images of people of color have been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed in response to the political and social tendencies of society and the artists over time.
From the French revolution to the abolition of slavery in 1848, to the revolution of the slaves in Saint Domingue (Haiti) in 1791, through the 19th century with the development of colonialism and scientific theories of race and early twentieth century with the philosophy of Negritude, the complexity and ambiguity of the representation of the black model has not been addressed. The exhibition asks us to revisit a subject until most recently totally neglected: the important contributions of people and personalities of color to the history of art and more broadly, the cultural, social and political life of France.
Olympia, by Edouard Manet, 1856
Born from Murrell ‘s Ph.D thesis at Columbia University 2013, Seeing Laure: Race and Modernity from Manet to Matisse Bearden and Beyond , its first stop at the Wallach Art Gallery, Posing Modernity: From Manet and Matisse to Beyond examined the legacy of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), arguing that this radical painting marked an evolving shift toward modernist portrayals of the black figure as an active participant in everyday life rather than as an exotic “other.” Stunned when her professor of art history said nothing about the black servant in Olympia who occupied half of the painting, Murrell began an investigation to discover the identity of this figure clearly visible before her, but whom art history saw, if at all, as an aesthetic and sensual counterpoint.
For Murrell, this invisibility was the product of social, political and scholarly choices sourced in racism rather than the lived reality of Manet or his artistic intention. Murrell states “I believe that Manet presented the maid in a way that suggests that the painting is as much about her and as a representation of the racial aspect of everyday life in modern Paris, just as much as it was about the prostitute as a representation of the changing codes, the changing mores, of sex work,” Murrell says. She saw in this model deprived of an identity and name, the symbol of the black diaspora and of the invisible minorities despite their presence and contributions ( Murrell has stated she couldn’t help but identify with Laure, as she, too had experienced this invisibility.)
Similarly she noted how few specialists in Matisse discussed the change in his representation of the black model from his voyages to North Africa, Portrait de Fatmah (formerly the Mulatto Fatmah (1912) to his portraits of mixed race women in the 1940’s and the influence on his work of his frequent visits to Harlem during the Harlem renaissance
A Frontal Discussion of Race through the Black Model and Iconic Personalities of Mixed Race
Two and a half times the size of the Wallach Art Gallery’s exhibition with a start date from the time of the French Revolution ,the exhibition at d’Orsay adds an important new narratives to Murrell’s focus on giving name and identity to the black female model: beginning in the 18 th century, the exhibition confronts slavery, race , the abolitionist movement , colonialism, and resistance to it, through the lens of the black model to examine not only the identity of the model, but the depiction of the artist of the black model black model and the influence of the black model on the artist, particularly in the complex era of the 19 th century.
Joseph by Theodore Gericault, 1819.
An exhibition of this kind with its political and aesthetic ambitions is basically unknown in France. It is not an exaggeration to state that this exhibition may equal in impact the New York Armory Show of 1913. The Armory 1913 questioned the 19th century vision of the art world. As one critic wrote of the Armory Show in 1913, “It’s a different time. And certainly this idea of deconstructing the old way of thinking is very much in the air.” The comment of one critic of the Armory Show in 1913 is appropriate here: “the exhibition has set the town talking and cannot fail to rank as a most inspiring event.”
What’s in a Name?
Etude d’apres le modele Joseph by Théodore Chassériau, 1819.
Portrait of Jeanne Duval by Edouard Manet, 1862.
Questioning the existing historic narrative, which omits blacks from the history of modern art in France, the exhibition gives names and an identity to the models who inspired painters from Géricault to Matisse :
Joseph, Gericault ‘s preferred model as well as a model for the Ecole des Beaux Arts and Theodore Chasserieu,; Jeanne, Baudelaire’s mistress and central to the Fleur du Mal , as well as Manet’s model, and Alicha Goblet (Henri Matisse) were names among the many black or mixed-race models who crossed the paths of artists, painters, sculptors and photographers. In addition to bringing to light and giving identity and name to the black model, the curators through the selection of the paintings, sculptures and documents on view argue that the artists’ relationship with the model and the model’s presence in the interracial intellectual, literary and artistic milieu modified the representation of blacks in the arts. Whether it was the relationship to the artist or independent political conviction, artist’s like Gericault became ardent abolitionists after Napoleon’s decree in 1802 as the curators argue is evident in his masterpiece Le Radeau de la meduse . The Napoleonic Code not only reinstated slavery and forbade mixed marriage in the colonies, limited immigration from the Antilles, but also made the authority of men over their families stronger, deprived women of any individual rights , and reduced the rights of illegitimate children.
Le Radeau de la meduse by Theodore Gericault, 1819.
It was brilliant to commission Glenn Ligon whose neon art work now commemorates their names. Not coincidentally, Ligon is known for his iconic (Untitled) ( I am a Man ), 1982, based on the Memphis Sanitation Workers who marched with Martin Luther King in 1968 shortly before his assassination.
The Four Continents by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, 1874 (foreground), with Some Black Parisians by Glenn Ligon, 2018. The figure of Africa gave rise to a bust that Carpeaux exhibited with the inscription Why be born a slave? This reference to the abolition of slavery is also visible in the statue: America is standing on the broken chain of slavery wrapped around Africa’s ankle.
To be Black in France: From the 18th Century to the Post-War
Unlike the United States, which has directly confronted the issues of race stemming from slavery, from the Dred Scott Decision (1857), the Civil War (1861- 1865) through the XIII, (1865) XIV(1868) , and XV Amendments (1870) to the Constitution, Plessy v Ferguson (1896) to Brown v Board of Education , the question of race in France is rarely the subject of open discussion: the French do not reflect directly on questions based on the color of skin or based on race. Throughout antiquity to the Middle Ages, contrary to the beginning of the modern period, there was never any tie between the color of one’s skin and slavery. Although empires as diverse as the Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings, and Genghis Kahn carried out slavery on a grand scale, none of their captives had any physical trait in common.
Caricature of Alexander Dumas
From around 1576, by law, slavery was outlawed in France and any slave from a foreign country was a free person from the time he or she arrived in France. Since the French Revolution which outlawed slavery in the colonies, with the exception of Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery in the colonies until 1848, the French Republic is in principle colorblind. However, with the expansion of slavery in the late eighteenth century and the simultaneous development, based on a new “scientific” classification of human biological traits, of a hierarchy of races, the word “race” would acquire meaning. From the late eighteenth century until the end of the nineteenth century, “race” in French thought was defined and redefined in relation to those social, political, and ideological processes that were coterminous with French social, cultural, and political development. In late-eighteenth- century France, racial thinking as well as racist utterances in print and images, became increasingly normalized and naturalized in popular culture.
(See James Smalls,Slavery is a Woman: “Race,” Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800), http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring04/70- spring04/spring04article/286-slavery-is-a-woman-race-gender-and-visuality-in-marie- benoists-portrait-dune-negresse-1800 ).
Sculptures by Charles Cordier, 1857
Works in the exhibition show a counter narrative to the popular imagery and beliefs in 19th century France.The exhibition includes works by the sculptor Charles Cordier who took a position against the prevalent attitude that the European model was the ideal of beauty and contradicted the also prevalent attitude of the hierarchy of race. Cordier argued that “beauty is not the privilege only of one race,” and aimed to spread the idea of a universal beauty: “the most beautiful black is not one that resembles us, nor one who has the traits that distinguish the black race from our own.” While Cordier did not believe in racial hierarchies, he nevertheless seemed to accept the idea of race in its essential nature.
Portrait of Alexandre Dumas
Josephine Baker, 1923
The exhibition documents France as a mixed racial society and establishes such giants of literature and art as Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers) and Théodore Chassériau as of mixed race. In contrast to the United States, and notwithstanding racial attitudes, Blacks were active in a variety of roles. For that reason, many US soldiers remained in Paris following the First World War, and entertainers like Josephine Baker, and many black artists from the United States remained in or moved to France.
Patchwork Quilt by Romare Bearden, 1970
This exhibition through its brilliant selection of works, particularly masterpieces of art history, uses art to ask the visitor to consider what a person of color could do in this society and the ambivalent role of the artist, even those who aggressively supported abolition like, Gericualt in executing their masterpieces. The Louvre did not lend Radeau de la Meduse but there are borrowed sketches. As the art critic Elisabeth Franck-Dumas wrote in La Liberation as almost always in art, the masterpieces which stake the exhibition are of an aggressive ambiguity; never do they support a political or moral reading; that is left to lesser known works by lesser known artists. Franck-Dumas also observed with respect to the investigation of the occupations of the black model, a certain downward lack of mobility in society.” Paris had a black mayor in 1879, a mulatto descendant of Cuban slaves. That was not imaginable in 1900; one asks whether it would be possible today?”
Une Moderne Olympia by Paul Cezanne, 1870
The exhibition uses variations on Olympia by notable artists as a theme. Ponder this variation by Cezanne and the implications for the subject at hand.
Art Against Slavery
Le Chatiment des quatre piquets dans les colonies by Marcel Antoine Verdier, 1843
L’Abolition de l’esclavage dans les colonies Francaises by Francois-Auguste Biard, 1849
Portrait d’une negresse ( Portrait of Madeleine) and Olympia ( Laure)
Portrait de Madeleine by Marie Guillaume Benoist, 1800
Murrell stated in a tour of the exhibition that for her, the tone of the d’Orsay exhibition is set by Marie Guillemine Benoist ‘s Portrait of a Negress (renamed Portrait of Madeleine for the exhibition) . The portrait, accepted for the Salon of 1800, reflects the beginning of the complex attitude of France to race from the French Revolution’s abolition of slavery in 1788 and Napoleon reinstating it in 1802 to the permanent abolition of slavery in 1848 to the present. “For more than 200 years there has never been an investigation to discover who she was–something that was recorded at the time,” Murrell said. “This is emblematic. It was art history that left them out. It has contributed to the construction of these figures as racial types as opposed to the individuals that they were.” Of course, the exhibition also reflects different attitudes of the artist to the subject as in the portrait called Portrait du Citoyen belley, ex representant des colonies (1797) by Anne- Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trison (1767-1824) three years earlier ,Chasserieu’s depiction of Joseph in the portrait for Ingres, Toussaint Louverture or General Dumas the father of the writer . (Right: Jean Baptiste Belley, depute de Saint- Dominque la Convention
by Anne-Louis Girodet, 1797)
( Left: Representart du Peuple, including a picture of Toussaint Louverture, by Jean-Baptiste Lesseur)
I have previously noted that d’Orsay added a second emphasis: the artist’s attitude to the black model. Also instructive in this regard is the comment of James Smalls, relevant to understanding not only Madeline , but also the ambivalence of other artists including Manet and Matisse toward their subject:
“The image underscores the observation that national and cultural identities of artists who speak through and for the Other oftentimes “mark themselves and their objects of othering in specific terms of racial, gender, and class differences.” The portrait goes far to highlight the co-existence of “processes of identification and objectification, [of] mirroring and distancing.” In the Portrait d’une négresse the harsh reality of the enslaved condition of this particular black woman (and by extension, all black women) is concealed beneath a veneer of aestheticizing and classicizing. However, for all its aesthetic allure and charm, the portrait robs the black sitter of her identity, her voice, and her agency in order to make a statement about the social position and power (albeit limited in the sense of male-dominated politics of the day) of bourgeois and upper class white women at the beginning of the nineteenth century in France…Paintings such as Benoist’s support the belief that the black subject is powerless before the “fact” of race, even though race was and remains a culturally constructed fiction in which “‘Blackness’ is a structure of racist inscription, not a color.”
As previously noted, Olympia was the inspiration for Murrell’s investigation. But what was Manet’s intent. I was interested to learn from the catalogue that intellectuals and artists of this time were not only aware of the Civil War in the United States but actively supported the North. Manet by the time he presented Olympia in the Salon of 1865, had already commemorated the sinking of the battleship CSS Alabama by the USS Kearsarge in a battle in 1864 off the coast of Cherbourg with a painting that he showed at his gallery. The catalogue entry mentions but does not conclude the relationship between Manet’s placement of black models in his work and the Civil War in the United States, except to mention that like many artists he was anti-Bonaparte’s sympathy for the Southern cause.
At the outset, it is important to note that so entrenched was the existing narrative that Murrell’s efforts to find a venue for this exhibition were unsuccessful and it was declined at major venues in the United States. But for the intervention and subsidy of the Ford Foundation, the exhibition would not have taken place. The Ford Foundation under Darren Walker has funded projects and exhibitions to make visible the invisible: Soul of a Nation in the Era of Black Power and this exhibition, to mention two. Courageous, too is the vision of Laurence des Cars, which goes to the heart of the current art historical narrative at one of France’s leading cultural institutions to supplement that narrative with several previously hidden or invisible histories. There are a number of takeaways relevant to future museum best practices and curatorial choices. The focus on various artists’ perceptions of the black model and the way aesthetics interacted with political and social issues of the day is fascinating and a relevant inquiry up to the present.
Murrell hopes the exhibition with its brilliantly selected works will influence curatorial choices in the future display of such works in the impressionists’ galleries at d’Orsay and in the Louvre to reflect that French art history is not simply the product of European white contributions but of a multi racial society that existed in the 19th and early 20th century.
The exhibition has already produced a commitment to change, perhaps beyond this exhibition, the names of works involving the portraits of known black models to their name from ‘Portrait of a Negress,’ and has provoked a discussion, rare in France, expanding the focus of Murrell’s narrative on art history to an explicit discussion of race in the arts and in society in France.
In this period of history when nativism and racism are on the rise, this non- didactic exhibition multi- disciplinary exhibition which asks us to see in a different way calls for research and scholarship by other curators and art historians. The questions provide a veritable gift basket to Ph.D scholars and art historians. For example, is there a scholar who will pose the question Why have there been no great black artists in nineteenth century France as Linda Nochlin had rhetorically asked in her pioneering feminist essay in 1971, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Murrell and the curatorial team’s research have pierced the tip of the ice berg.
Will this exhibit be a similar call to action for museum curators in France and elsewhere as Fred Wilson’s landmark “Mining the Museum” exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. Wilson reinserted a previously suppressed history of African American slavery by pulling from archival storage objects such as slave manacles and putting them on display: “working with objects in the collection of the MHS, Wilson unsettled the museum’s comfortably white, upper-class narrative by juxtaposing silver repoussé vessels and elegant 19th-century armchairs with slave shackles and a whipping post. Texts, spotlights, recorded texts, and objects traditionally consigned to storage drew attention to the local histories of blacks and Native Americans, effectively unmaking the familiar museological narrative as a narrow ideological project.” (see link http://www.bmoreart.com/2017/05/how-mining-the- museum-changed-the-art-world.html ).
Alternatively, is it a call to us the spectators to recognize that where we sit is what we see. In “Speak of Me as I am,” Wilson, representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003, asked us to see blacks in the life of Venice from the Renaissance to the present.
In one room of the Palladian villa he hung Old Master oil paintings borrowed from the Academia, an examples of how frequently blacks are featured in some of the classics of Western art, even though we don’t tend to pay their presence much attention: One 18th-century painting includes a black youth as a servant to King David; a Renaissance work shows the goddess Diana with a black among her nymphs; a third painting, again from the 16th century, is of a Medici prince who may have been part black.
On another wall, photographs from museums show details of other views of blacks in Renaissance Italian art: A black Wise Man from a famous Nativity scene; blacks as fancily dressed servants at fantastical biblical feasts; blacks as gondoliers and porters seen in views of Venice. Most of the figures in these pictures may be servants, and perhaps were included for their exoticism, but they don’t fit into stereotypes about blackness, because in the Renaissance, blacks seem to have been a normal element in the exotic mix of cosmopolitan Venice.
Not to dwell too much on Fred Wilson whom I had the privilege to represent on his first public art contract while he was still working at an art center in the Bronx, I nevertheless believe it worthwhile to consider another Wilson work which I initially saw in the Project Space at MOMA in 1993 in an exhibition entitled Readymades. The work, Guarded View 1991 contributes to this discussion not only for its content but also for what it indicates about changing museum curatorial practices.
Readymade Identities uses clothing as a medium to explore the theme of identity, in all its layers and guises. Curator Fereshteh Daftari writes, “A fashion show of readymade but uncomfortable identities, this exhibition presents a few of the great many garment-based works being produced by contemporary artists who are acutely aware that the choices we make are determined by social and historical designs over which we may have little conscious control Fred Wilson’s squad of four black mannequins, dressed in the uniforms of museum guards, are lined up at the entrance to the exhibition. This installation, Guarded View (1991), presents the public facade of men, commenting on male occupations as well as other issues.” The work was not acquired by MOMA from the exhibition and is now in the collection of the Whitney as a gift from Peter Norton Family Foundation. The work in its catalogue entry is described quite differently.” Fred Wilson’s Guarded View aggressively confronts viewers with four black headless mannequins dressed as museum guards. Each figure wears a uniform, dating to the early 1990s, from one of four New York City cultural institutions. Despite this specificity, the faceless mannequins underscore the anonymity expected of security personnel, who are tasked with protecting art and the public while remaining inconspicuous and out of view. Wilson himself worked as a museum guard in college, and explained: ‘[There’s] something funny about being a guard in a museum. You’re on display but you’re also invisible.’ He challenges this dynamic by placing these ordinarily unnoticed figures at the center of our attention, pointing to the hidden power relations and social codes that structure our experience of museums.”
Guarded View (c) Fred Wilson
Perhaps the take away goes beyond a message to see art history in a more inclusive way and the implications that has for museum, gallery and artistic practice. Perhaps it is to see the other as us I recall an incident at Fairway market on the west-side of New York in which an entitled thirties something white male was having a hissy fit at the person serving ground coffee. Impatient, he stated,” do you know how rich I am”, as if this was an entitlement pass to be served immediately. The African immigrant working the coffee section replied, and “what do you know about me? ” We are all the product of different circumstances and different cultural traditions; however our potential is not defined by the color of our skin, our nationality or our race.
“Murrell poses as the natural outcome of recognizing the identity and presence of Madeline or Laure or the contributions of the black diaspora in France, including those of mixed race, a different answer to the question “what does it mean to be French? Why does being French necessarily imply being white or European?”
Artist Ellen Gallagher subverts an anonymous photograph of Henri Matisse drawing the model Zita in his studio in 1928. In this self portrait and feminist commentary on the set piece figure of the odalisque, the artist reveals herself as a true descendant in the fantastic and artistic world of Matisse alike. (Credits: © Musée d’Orsay – Sophie Crépy)
Books On Sale at the Book Store of the d’Orsay During the Exhibition
“To be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar, is to be afraid of life, and to be afraid of life is to be afraid of truth.”
The Armory Catalogue, 1913.
(C) Barbara T. Hoffman, 2019.