New YorkWallach Art Gallery
October 24, 2018 – February 10, 2019
There was a time, not so long ago, when the study of Realism, Impressionism, and the roots of French Modernism was the edgiest of fields. Advanced scholarship and concomitant museum exhibitions teased out aspects of such Paris-based art that kept it dynamic: the quality of intellectual discernment was high; smart graduate dissertations flowed; the works connected with a popular audience; and picture prices went through the roof. But then complacency set in. Exhibition after exhibition included “Impressionism” in the title to draw in the punters. Great pictures were leant too frequently and became ancillary or served as backdrops to other works. The art’s revolutionary aspect so well teased out by Theodore Reff, T.J. Clark, Linda Nochlin, Robert Herbert, Griselda Pollock, Tamar Garb, and others became a mere assumption, its consequent critical greatness assumed. Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Renoir, Cassatt, Caillebotte, and crew became the old masters, and exhibitions settled into a comfortable neutral gear, more celebratory than critical: Impressionists in winter, Renoir’s full-lengths, Impressionism and fashion, Impressionist gardens.
Recently, however, this conceptual torpor has yielded to a new vitality. The art of the talented Frédéric Bazille—his career and life truncated by two Prussian bullets to the stomach in 1870—received a fine reappraisal in Washington, D.C., in 2017 in the National Gallery’s Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism, while the recent Monet & Architecture show at London’s National Gallery made a formidable case for thinking anew about the artist’s imaging of Paris, of Rouen Cathedral, of London, of Venice, and his radical pictorial construction. There is also a reappraisal of the work of Berthe Morisot in a show now at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, on view at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, follows in this vein, offering an overview of how Impressionist and Modernist artists referenced Black models in their works, and showing continuities in contemporary art. The show is singular in illuminating fully, and with an intellectual mindset perhaps only possible in a university museum, an aspect of Realist and Impressionist art that has been glossed over, while pulling its theme effectively and thrillingly into the present. It is the kind of display that should give any prospective graduate student hope that there still remains work to be done on even on the most picked-over and seemingly moribund artists and movements.
Curator Denise Murrell, drawing from her Columbia doctoral dissertation, presents a finely hewed argument about the Black community in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century and its crucial connection to the evolution of French modern art. The starting point is Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), with its stark juxtaposition of a defiant and naked white female prostitute and her black maid. Unfortunately, the painting is not here—it has only once left the Musée d’Orsay, where this exhibition will travel to next. But no matter, because Laure, the model for the maid, is up here in Manhattanville in the form of Manet’s portrait of her from 1863 on loan from the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli in Turin. It is vibrantly unfinished, in the artist’s inimitable manner, and richly communicates the sitter’s warmth of personality and Manet’s appreciation of her. This forms the linchpin of the first room, showing Laure in a casual pose, and is not simply a study for her role as a maid in Olympia. Murrell uses it to explore the origins of the growing Black community in Paris, a byproduct of Enlightenment colonial policies in the revolutionary 1790s that freed slaves in some French territories and encouraged their migration to the heart of the Empire, and then the opportunities that followed the Socialist-inflected revolution of 1848. The introductory room also contains an informative map, a key to personalities, images of Parisian Blacks in the work of Nadar and other photographers, and a Delacroix portrait of a Black female model to provide a foil against which Manet’s novel depiction can be judged. In a fine touch, a cutout in the far wall, right across from the entrance to the show and next to the Delacroix, allows a view into the fifth room, and perfectly frames Charles Alston’s Girl in a Red Dress from 1934 and the Harlem Renaissance—a preview of even more enlightened images of identities to come.
The second and most stunning room hinges on an axis that juxtaposes Jean-Leon Gérôme’s gemlike Moorish Bath (1870) from Boston with Bazille’s lavish La Toilette from the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, two of a number of superb loans in the show. Gérôme’s glittering Orientalist confection, memorably deconstructed by Nochlin in her essay “The Imaginary Orient” (1983), treats the white nude slave woman being prepared for the delectation of a sultan and the black half-nude slave as pristinely painted elements in an opulent and fabulistic Orientalist tableau, whereas Bazille shows real women in a less sexually freighted milieu. Murrell deploys a range of works in multiple media to reveal the colonialist and ethnographic elements in even the most seemingly sympathetic images of Black people, such as Bazille’s, in order to show how Manet de-Orientalized and subverted these norms with his fully clothed figure of Laure in Olympia, her body desexualized, her clothing a mixture of Parisian working-class dress and subtly creole head scarf. This theme is explored in two further rooms using works by Degas, images of Charles Baudelaire’s biracial mistress, Jeanne Duval, and photographs, sculptures, and caricatures of West Indian and African women that give a rich sense of the range of such representations in the world of Parisian entertainment through the later nineteenth century.
These lead into the next gallery where, in America, it all gets stood on its head. Matisse serves here as a transitional figure—essentially a French Post-Impressionist who traveled to North Africa as French artists had done since Delacroix in the 1830s, and then in 1916-17 painted two stunning pictures featuring the Black Aïcha Goblet, formerly a circus worker, and the White Italian model Lorette. Both pictures are in the exhibit, and the two models interact so casually and are depicted so naturally in Matisse’s thick and seemingly effortless outlines and deep delicious colors, that they explode prior conceptions of racial, class, gender, and social distinctions. This room documents Matisse’s multiple trips to New York in the 1930s alongside art by and of African Americans that he encountered here. After gallery after gallery of pictures and sculptures and prints and photographs of Black bodies by White men, there is a particular charge in seeing Laura Wheeler Waring’s sensitive and beautifully painted portrait of a former slave, Anna Washington Derry, made in Harlem in 1927. A Black woman paints a Black woman. The world is seen in a new and momentous way. This is accompanied by Alston’s matter-of-fact-in pose, but coloristically dazzling attempt to portray what he called the “New Negro” woman, Girl in a Red Dress, and other groundbreaking and compelling works by Norman Lewis, William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, Jr., and James Van Der Zee. These are followed by a display of Matisse’s later images featuring black models and his illustrations to Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1947). The many Matisse works are lovely but feel less necessary to the show in such numbers, especially as their volume only underscores the dominance of male artists who, via brush or lens, continued to interpret the Black female form on their own terms, no matter how supportively.
But this is all blown aside in the knockout final room, one whose display whips the potent ideas of the exhibition stirringly into the present, with ten contemporary works in various media by seven female and three male artists. Here, Mickalene Thomas, Awol Erizku, and Ellen Gallagher continue to pursue shifts in the imaging of the Black female body but from a wide range of perspectives, and the works of Maud Sulter, Aimé Mpane, Elizabeth Colomba, and Jean-Pierre Schneider take Manet’s Olympia and Laure herself as subjects for deconstruction and expansion. The catalogue is excellent. The show is sharp. It perfectly promotes the enlightened, inclusive, and educational mandate of the University that supports it, and it furthers our understanding of modern art while revealing its continued importance to contemporary art in a way that few museums dare to make concrete in their permanent galleries.
Jason Rosenfeld Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.