Modernism’s Debt to Black Women | Daily News

Modernism’s Debt to Black Women

Around the time that Édouard Manet was painting Olympia, in 1863, a liberating politics was underway in France. Napoleon III had become so distracted with foreign affairs—handling the Second French Intervention in Mexico, breaking up a burgeoning Roman Republic in order to restore the Pope’s power, and making colonial conquests throughout Central Africa, Asia, and the South Seas—that he had little time to resist many of the political pressures back home. And so he was actually carrying out some of the promises he’d made in the run-up to his Second Empire coronation, such as reducing media censorship and allowing workers to strike. By 1870, Napoleon III, under the pressure of the Liberals, even assented to a parliamentary legislature in France, which would ultimately serve as the basis of the Third Republic.

In the late nineteenth century, Paris began to seem like an integrated and relatively racially equitable city. After the 1848 Revolution, slavery had been abolished in France’s territorial colonies; Caribbean people moved en masse to the French capital. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, and his father, Thomas-Alexandre—who was one of the most important black military men in European history—were viewed as unassailably prominent members of French society. Racism, of course, still existed, even at the highest levels of government: in 1884, Jules Ferry, who served as both prime minister and as president of the senate, was espousing his eugenics-based racism, saying things like, “The higher races have a right over the lower races … a duty to civilize the inferior races.” But for a moment, the scene seemed to be set for a fresh form of liberty and relative equality.

Contemporary social scene

Art, naturally, was both driver and recipient. The poet Charles Baudelaire was dating Jeanne Duval, a French Haitian actress so beautiful she was often called the Black Venus and was painted by Manet. Manet, meanwhile, was fashioning himself as a recorder of the contemporary social scene. A number of his paintings depicted the black people who had immigrated to the northern neighborhoods of Paris.

In his studio notebook, he described the black maid whom he painted standing next to the lounging white prostitute in Olympia and the black caregiver in his Children in the Tuileries Garden (1862) as “Laure, très belle négresse, rue Vintimille, 11, 3éme étage.” Manet’s depiction of Laure wasn’t exoticized—not the kind of nude caricature that had been standard of European depictions of black women. Instead, with her voguish neckline and bouquet of flowers, Laure modeled a typically “white role,” as a clerk in a department store or a server at a café. Also: whereas in Titian’s Venus of Urbino (ca. 1532), a clear forerunner of Olympia, the maid, who is white, is turned away from the nude, lounging women in the foreground; in Olympia, Laure is just as much a part of the scene, in both the amount of the canvas she takes up and her foregrounded placement.

A few years ago, Denise Murrell, an African American woman studying for a doctorate in art history at Columbia, found that excerpt about Laure in Manet’s studio diary. Murrell was studying the depiction of black women from Olympia—the painting that is often considered the founding work of Modernism—to the modern day. Murrell’s dissertation, which she completed in 2013, served as the basis of the exhibitions “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” which she curated at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York, and “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” which is currently on at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris as an expanded iteration of the New York exhibition. (The Orsay exhibition includes a number of works on view only in France, like Olympia. Murrell co-curated the Orsay show, along with Cécile Debray and Stéphane Guégan.)

The Orsay exhibition includes paintings of black women by Manet, Géricault, Matisse, Delacroix, Gauguin, Picasso, Bonnard, and Cézanne. Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress has been, in this exhibition, temporarily renamed Madeleine, after the black model’s name, an act of humanization. But it is Laure, Manet’s model, who is at the center of both the Orsay exhibition and Murrell’s dissertation—a founding symbol of the overlooked centrality of black women in Modernism.

Cultural hybridity

“The small body of published commentary about Manet’s Laure, with a few notable exceptions, generally dismisses the figure as meaning, essentially, nothing—except as an ancillary intensifier of the connotations of immorality attributed to the prostitute,” Murrell writes in her dissertation. She suggests, however, that Laure demonstrates that the history of Modernism is also, in part, the history of an “evolving cultural hybridity.” Ultimately, she writes, “what is at stake is an art-historical discourse posed as an intervention with the prevailing historical silence about the representation and legacy of Manet’s Laure.” “The black female figure,” she concludes, “is foundational to the evolving aesthetics of modern art.”

It’s a similar idea to that championed by the artist Lorraine O’Grady in her seminal 1992 paper “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” in which she argues that black models are far more than formal constructs, as was often claimed—their color meant to bring to the fore the white models in contrast.

Olympia was indeed a formally revolutionary artwork in its flatness and the washed-out color of the white woman in the foreground. But as O’Grady hints, and as pointed out by the doctoral student Kaegan Sparks, Laure’s blackness also blends into the background, creating, as Sparks writes, a kind of “proto-abstraction,” another tenant of this nascent Modernism.

Placing black models at the center of—and the beginning of—Modernism also works to overturn the idea that high art is the sole purview of white, European culture. “One of the central claims to European supremacy,” writes Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham University, is that “art galleries and museums are the embodiment of whiteness—at times, it seems, conceived solely to prove that ‘high’ culture is the possession of those of European descent.”

This remains a core claim of conservative thinkers today and is the not-so-subtle implication of those who cling to so-called Western values. - Paris Review


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