Silhouettes Then and Now
Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now
(The National Portrait Gallery/Princeton University Press, 2018)
The profile, from the Latin profilare, “to render in outline,” is today a pervasive form. The profile provides the conceptual unit of social networks, while to profile, for a magazine or by a law officer, signifies the act of reducing and distilling a person to a stereotype or sketch. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, published for The National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition of the same name, does the interesting work of considering the history and meaning of the evocative and possibly insidious outlined form. Curated by Asma Naeem, the show is the first to give significant art historical treatment to silhouette portraits, or “profiles,” as they were frequently known. As Naeem explains in her opening essay, profiles showing a subject’s face, hair, and neck in outline exploded in popularity at the end of the 1700s with the invention of the physiognotrace, a device that shone light on a sitter in order to cast their shadow onto a piece of paper. With its aid, an artist could outline the human face with unprecedented speed and exactness, offering the sitter an inexpensive cut-out of their likeness. Although cut-outs and hand-drawn silhouettes remained one of the most common portraiture techniques into the 1800s, they have been largely ignored by art historians owing to their low, cheap nature—deemed more relics of popular culture than objets d’art. They were also eclipsed by photography and have become a mere footnote to the story of that medium’s development within art historical scholarship.
The catalogue, like the exhibition, attempts to highlight the importance of the silhouette in American art (though some examples are drawn from elsewhere). It begins with 18th and 19th-century cut-outs, drawings, and prints, and ends with examples of the silhouette in contemporary art by Kumi Yamashita, Kristi Malakoff, Camille Utterback, and Kara Walker, the living artist most famous for her work with this form. Despite the magnetic force of Walker’s art, it is the older images that stand out as the most interesting. Less familiar to a majority of readers, the historical context of their creation is particularly rich. The silhouette’s great popularity in the period around the American Revolution can be interpreted as a sign of Americans’ growing desire for a sense of individualism and freedom from Europe. Naeem writes, “It was as if each early republic citizen fell from the hands of the artists and stood for the subject’s separation from the monarchical body.”
By giving people of little means or power the ability to record and share their own image, the silhouette was also, Naeem argues, a means of building a democratic and anti-hierarchical national iconography. Even the men and women who made silhouettes tended to be a slightly more diverse group than professional painters or sculptors and included both women and African American men. In his catalogue contribution, Alexander Nemerov introduces Martha Ann Honeywell, a popular 19th-century Baltimore artisan whom we might today call an “outsider artist.” Born missing her arms and one foot, she used her toes to make paper cut-outs of people’s faces as well as natural motifs like snowflakes or flowers, rendered in multi-colored paper and so intricately clipped they resemble needlework.
But if the silhouette gave shape to a broad vision of American citizenry, the form equally allowed Americans to mark out those who were less welcome in the new nation: the foreign, the un-American, and the strange. As Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw discusses, from their inception, studies of human profiles were closely tied to ethnography and, later, eugenics. Silhouettes’ capacity for both specification and generalization made them a popular medium for depicting the supposedly distinctive traits of African Americans and Native Americans, as evidenced by examples of silhouettes of the latter, which label their sitters by tribe, claiming them as emblems of an entire people. In such essentializing pictures, the silhouette performs a contradictory gesture. As Naeem puts it, with characteristic poetry, “despite the individualized conditions of their making, [such silhouettes] took on more totemic qualities as specimen-like objects or things for discourses implicating constructions of race.” The silhouette’s simplicity and reproducibility meant that it could be used to represent any person. The very same inclusivity, ironically, meant that groups of silhouettes could be used to build pseudoscientific webs of human commonality and difference.
In the end, it is the silhouette’s many oppositions and ambiguities that make it so compelling. It is both empty and full; an exterior that delineates interiority but says nothing entirely definitive about it. It is also fixed and mobile. The paper cut-out shows a person holding a static pose; but as an object, it can be moved and affixed to any number of surfaces. In its quest to faithfully capture a person, the silhouette acknowledges race, while also, as the exhibition’s title puts it, blacking out its subjects’ skin tones. One of its primary historical purposes was as an ethnographic signifier, yet post-photography, the format’s flatness and relative featurelessness has allowed it to be repurposed within contemporary online culture as an emblem of blank, universal humanity.
Indeed, the default image offered with most social media profiles is a generic silhouette embedded with a call to action. In sharing our own photographs and substituting these place-holder images with them, we are asked to make ourselves more complete and recognizable online. With each upload, our avatar moves further away from a set of ovals and rectangles, positioned in the shape of a human figure. With each upload, we are drawing our outline more sharply, then filling it in slowly—piece by piece, a little more each day. Soon, it may not be a profile at all, but something much more solid and “accurate,” as the revelations about Facebook data in campaign micro-targeting suggest. The precarity and provocation of the traditional silhouette—as exemplified in Walker’s work or in the catalogue’s historic pictures—lies in its halfway state between indefiniteness and detail, between total abstraction and realistic portraiture.
HANNAH STAMLER is a New York City-based arts writer and history Ph.D. student at Princeton University.