Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today
an exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery, New York City, October 24, 2018–February 10, 2019; and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, March 26–July 14, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition by Denise Murrell
Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, 224 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
When we think of what is modern we think of many things. Cursorily, some things that come to mind are the telephone, the automobile, the airplane — new technologies each, which allowed for new ways of being in a world made that much smaller by their reorientation of time and space, even as they presented new occasions for distraction and dislocation and the onset of a thoroughly urban ennui. (One is reminded that one of the hallmarks of Western society following the Industrial Revolution is the restless expectancy of avoiding boredom.)
The artists we most readily identify as modern — Manet, Matisse, Picasso — who interrogated these extraordinary modes of representation, dodging boredom (to the extent that it can be dodged) by highlighting irregularities, as opposed to upholding an idealized standard of beauty (“There’s no symmetry in nature,” observed the painter of the time- and space-reorienting “The Railway,” “We all have a more or less crooked nose and an irregular mouth”) and establishing unorthodox perspectives are best summarized in the figure of Proust’s outlaw painter Elstir (inspired in part by Manet) with his yearning to visualize things more innocently.
We don’t normally associate the word “innocent” with Black women in our modern conception (it’s indeed an ideal that was already in extremis in Proust’s France by the time of M. Swann’s perpetually bored, if not happily unfaithful wife, Mme. Odette de Crécy). But if by innocence we mean an “irregular” kind of beauty, then a current exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery (spanning roughly from 1865 to the present day) celebrates that beauty as embodied by Black women, who are the muses, unsurprisingly or not, for these great artists, and whose position in society historically (itself a gift and a curse with its demands of a constant grace under pressure) has rendered them anything but bored.
That Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today is in the safe hands of a Black woman, curator Denise Murrell, who likely had no time to be bored in the short five years that it took for it to metamorphose from student thesis at Columbia to this remarkable exhibit quartered at the University’s newly expanded Lenfest Center for Arts is perfectly fitting, as is its location in Harlem, which Matisse adored and clearly drew inspiration from during his visits to its jazz clubs in the 1930s.
Showcased here, Charles Alston’s Girl in a Red Dress (1934) no doubt captures some of the wit and vivaciousness characteristic of the women in what James Weldon Johnson labeled “Black Manhattan,” when Blacks were the American exemplars par excellence for Europe at the culmination of the Jazz Age.
There’s something almost novelistic in the tiny brush strokes Alston (who was cousin and mentor to Romare Bearden) uses creating light and shade with the lush pastry-like textures — cool creams on the collar surrounding the taste-bud-bursting red of her dress, which contrasts tastefully with the burnt-waffle black hue of her face, which foregrounds a blueberry mess of a naked windowpane at night — to depict an intelligent-looking young woman cutting her eyes (so lively in her impertinence!), who would not at all be out of place in Baldwin’s ageless depiction of that selfsame milieu in Go Tell It on the Mountain. (Baldwin, who would have been ten the year the painting debuted, might have been pinched and told to sit still by such a girl in a church somewhere several blocks east of the Gallery.)
Who else artistically at the time was giving Black women their agency, representing them as fully formed and three-dimensional, flaws and all? In what other mediums? Zora Neale Hurston — herself a Columbia University alumna, who was said to have been incapable of being embarrassed by anyone Black, certainly. (The apparent lacunae in the lineage linking a less celebrated painter like Alston to Their Eyes Were Watching God, whose author, coincidentally, shares with him the same alma matter is explained by the fact that most artistic contributions by Blacks of that era were not in painting, but were musical, outside of a newly developing literature.) Richard Wright? Not even on the scene yet. And, anyway, not even. How, then, did the French postimpressionist Matisse, with his later infatuation with the Black mecca hold up in this light?
Two paintings, both on display, are notably instructive. The first, Aïcha et Lovette puts to alluring use his infamous Fauves (“wild beasts”) technique, utilizing muscular, transgressive brush strokes emphasizing raw emotive power over technical mastery to describe a white woman with her arm draped around her poised Black woman companion. Matisse’s telling rendering of the former is a brilliant blur of disillusionment where the black of her hair bleeds, funereally, into a jacket opened to reveal the sliver of a plummeting neckline above a face whose vanilla sadness betrays the subject’s most pronounced asset.
The illustration depicting the staid face of the Italian model otherwise known as Laurette, with the swoop of that draped arm coheres to create a dissonant relationship between her intent and Aïcha’s reality, carrying the clever implication that she is presenting her, however shamefacedly, while Aïcha, for our purposes clearly defined, with a nose like a pyramid appears not so much tolerant or compliant as she does serenely in a world of her own.
The second painting, Coffee features a seated woman (who may or may not be Laurette) peering out from the canvas’s flat surface next to a Black woman holding a tray supporting just that beverage, where the white woman’s look is one of provincial malaise, as if to say, “Isn’t this a bit ridiculous?” while her would-be domestic stands nonplussed in her snappy attire (she is wearing a hat like Hurston wore), so that the overall suggestion is that these two don’t quite know what to do with each other, as if the question in 1916 is, Who is serving whom?
At the center is Manet’s Olympia, which, in Murrell’s words “excavates the narrative of Laure,” who was the Black model who posed as a maid in the 1865 masterpiece and reappears throughout the next hundred-odd years as a spiritual progenitor of sorts. A scandalizing reboot of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Olympia’s alla prima rendition — loose visible strokes applied “all at once” on top of wet layers of paint, rather than in the meticulously blended invisible strokes which distinguish the original’s Medieval ideal of beauty establishes a setting where the Black woman’s all-too-obvious facticity gives her a strange kind of freedom, whereas the European white woman in this new distraction-prone age strikes one as not all that happy with her newfound freedoms.
Freedoms at least partially available one imagines to Jeanne Duval, the biracial subject of Manet’s Lady with a Fan (1862), who was longtime mistress to Baudelaire. This for all intents and purposes kept woman, whom the poet referred to as “Vénus Noire,” or “Black Venus” looks in this painting as though she is torn between two worlds, her half-opened fan and plush surroundings giving the lie to her world-weary countenance.
In fact, the taboo sexuality associated with “Black Venus” is something made palpable via Murrell’s wise decision to include in this exhibition Duval (as well as a brief bio on Saartje Baartman, the tragically sexualized so-called “Venus of Hottentot”) along with stylized portraits of modern-day sex workers (Awol Erizuku’s Elsa from 2013), and (in the catalog) Josephine Baker. And it’s illustrative, sadly, of the complicated relationship, then and now between Black women and a patriarchal society dominated by white supremacy, one in which Cardi B is taken to task by the right with the implication that being a Black woman and having a body-positive image is somehow scandalous.
Frankly, a bit of an accusatory air was itself on display and reflected in the cold and indifferent natures of some of those in attendance when I visited the Gallery on a recent weekend. It’s an Ivy League establishment, granted. But let’s not forget that nearly a block away are the Manhattanville Houses projects. (Who is really the outsider here? For whom is all this for?) Indeed, some of those tenants — women who were on their way to, say, the laundromat that Saturday are more stylish and au courrant than whatever can be discerned by some of the all-appraising women taking up space at the Gallery that day.
There were thankfully a few present who might have been from the neighborhood, like the woman I saw fondly viewing 2013’s Olympia II — ”They flipped it!” — an ingenious reversal of the original: the Black woman is now the unbored naked courtesan waited on by a white maid. This amused admirer looked for all the world like the nearby sculpture African Venus (1851) — a dreadlocked woman with light jewelry in a wrapped raiment looking unfazed and completely contemporary as if she were at a poetry slam.
If, as this fascinating and deeply enriching showing winds down, works by current Black woman artists (namely Renée Cox’s nude self-portrait American Beauté, and Mickalene Thomas’s blaxploitation-esque Din, une très belle negresse # 1) feel a bit out of place, it’s, if anything, because Western culture on the whole still struggles to find a place for a transcendent Black femininity it at once worships and reviles. Posing Modernity, then, is an anything-but-boring reminder that when black women win, everybody wins.