In 1992 art historian and writer Eunice Lipton published Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model. The book focuses on Lipton’s obsessive art historical pursuit to identify and better understand the life of Edouard Manet’s celebrated but little-known model, Victorine Meurent. It was Meurent who sat for—some might say collaborated on—his provocative masterpiece, Olympia (1863). Lipton pursued evidence separating Meurent’s paltry biography from the painting’s titillating mythology. Part art history, part autobiography, part veneration, Lipton’s literary fusion paid equal attention to her own familial confessions as well as saluting France and its capital. However, the significant presence of the Black maid in Manet’s painting, while mentioned, was little discussed. Not coincidently 1992 was precisely the same year that Lorraine O’Grady first presented a paper using Olympia’s Maid to catapault her inquiry, “Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity.”
On ViewMusée d’Orsay
March 26 – July 21, 2019
More than 20 years later, another art historian, Denise Murrell, began her career with in-depth research into that same Black female figure in Manet’s Olympia. The flower-bearing attendant’s name was recorded by Manet simply as “Laure.” Murrell completed her Ph.D. on the subject at Columbia University and, by extension, on the representation of Black models in 19th- and 20th-century French and American art. Murrell’s research was extensive, intensive, and highly original. Her investigation opened a veritable Pandora’s box, covering the functions of Black figures in French art preceding and reverberating from Manet’s pivotal painting. Murrell also delved into the role of artists and intellectuals of color, the Harlem Renaissance, and an in-depth examination of the Black model who sat for Henri Matisse’s illustrated Les Fleurs du Mal. Murrell’s thesis ultimately became the impetus behind Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, an exhibition held at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery between October 2018 and February 2019.
Le Modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse, the title for the Musèe d’Orsay exhibition, was a lavish expansion of Posing Modernity. Murrell curated the New York show. In Paris, she formed part of the larger Orsay team, and benefited from the powerful reach and the clout of the French institution for loans, funding, and not least, gallery space. The New York show was copiously discussed in reviews, articles, and on social media. However, both the French and United States press focused mainly on the iconographic and historical subject matter of this heretofore overlooked material. Its Parisian incarnation was deemed nothing short of “major” and “magnificent.” My focus here is mainly the Paris exhibition, and how its conception and structure were carefully fashioned and smartly installed to push forward arguments regarding the Black figure’s integral relationship with the development of the modern art and culture.
Certainly, Murrell’s initial fulcrum focused on Manet’s Olympia and in particular the way the highly staged figure of the Black maid had been a veritable blindspot for art history. This was central to the arguments both at the Wallach and at Orsay, all the better that Olympia could be part of the Parisian installation. By extension the codification and display of images of and works by Black and mixed-race writers, artists, also part of Murrell’s initial research, could no longer be ignored. What was new to the French exhibition was the large array of popular culture and caricatures of both well-known and anonymous Black figures. The physical and polemical diversity of such material, in combination with the art and historical documents relating to France’s colonial history, made the case for the prevalence not only of images but also of individuals that would now need to be acknowledged for future historical and art historical undertakings. The French members of the Orsay team regarded this exposure as all the more significant in France, where as the reviewer in the newspaper Le Monde put it, there was a “flagrant deficit of curiosity” in earlier research, and where the histories of racism and colonialism were seriously lacking.
With the amplitude of its research, the variety of the imagery and documents presented, the Paris installation was exponentially larger in scale and scope than its foundational New York staging. Although it may sound contradictory, the Paris show was also at once much more focused and simultaneously broader in range. Different from New York, the Orsay team focused mainly on Francophone history and imagery, mainly from early 19th century to World War II. Ultimately the Paris exhibition became a curatorially complex, very well-crafted endeavor for which Orsay pulled out all the stops. This created a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) that transformed Murrell’s excellent Wallach presentation into an even more stellar exhibition of blockbuster proportions. Orsay’s hefty resources permitted a curatorial approach, that although organized by a team, came across as the hand of a hydra-limbed auteur.
Already multifaceted in its New York presentation, many more documents, of infinitely more diverse types, were included in Paris. The mix of masterpiece and trinket, precious and mundane, avant-garde and academic, offered an exceptionally heady, sometimes dizzying, entrée into the subject. At Orsay the exhibition became a more intensely hybrid operation, mixing social, political, intellectual, and personal histories through important drawings, archival materials, artist’s copies, posters, film footage, and caricatures. The Paris show, which its curators call “a war of images,” might be likened to collage, sometimes hallucinatory in the way the barrage of the impressions jostle viewers’ consciousness. This collage-like reconfiguration appears intentional, offering Murrell and the Orsay team a conceptual metaphor for history and experience. In reference to the strategic use of collage by Romare Bearden, Murrell astutely quoted Ralph Ellison who observed that the fragmented aspect of collage, with its “sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, Surreal blending of styles, values, hopes and dreams” formed the cultural reality of Black Americans.
That show, though ordered in essentially 12 sections, opened in galleries with angled walls that made the flow among these early sections relatively fluid. It began with a focus on the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1794 in the wake of the French Revolution, its reinstatement under Napoleon in 1802, and its legal eradication in French colonial territories in 1848. Treated alongside this history of mainland France and its colonies in Africa and the Caribbean was the resultant revolution in and independence of Haiti, a French colony until 1804. This chronological frame offered opportunities for numerous sidebars, or adjacent sections, that examined the images of Black individuals, frequently artist’s models, in early 19th century art. Murrell and the Orsay team were often able to ascertain, if sometimes by first name only, the identities of many previously nameless sitters to respect their subjective positions and acknowledge their personhood rather than present them as types or ciphers.
Two monumental history paintings, both abolitionist in intent, bookended these early parts of the exhibition. Marcel Antoine Verdier’s The Punishment with Four Stakes, (1843) and Francois-Auguste Biard’s The Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies on April 27, 1848, (1848). These pictures framed the major political discourse on slavery, despite the prevailing politesse of each composition and the still patronizing, colonialist attitudes of the White characters portrayed. Across from the Verdier picture stood a large-scale, half round pedestal displaying five luxe 19th century sculptures, three of them by Charles Cordier. Shown here were lavishly fashioned and Orientalized, generalized and exoticized, if also dignified and glamorous, subjects with telling titles such as Negress of the Colonies, (1861) and Man from Sudan, (1857) along with the seductively posed, sexually implicit bronze abstrusely called African Venus (1851). Cordier’s art was said to be anti-slavery, yet his embellished stereotypes demonstrated the need to understand these works within the pervasive racial ecosystems of that epoch. Modestly sized historic documents like the 1794 decree of the National Convention abolishing slavery on Santo Domingo, Guadeloupe, and Guyana, and images of the early players in the struggle, like the 19th-century Haitian military leader Toussaint Louverture, added substantive context to both historical narrative and installation. All this material created a rich and complex matrix foreshadowing our ultimate encounter with Manet’s Olympia, the Orsay exhibition’s centerpiece.
One of Denise Murrell’s important sections at the Wallach venue highlighted Henri Matisse’s stay in New York City, his discovery of jazz, and his frequenting of Harlem during the height of its Renaissance around 1930. Ultimately, she argues, this exposure to Black culture influenced the evolution of his future depiction of Black models. Images by the resident photographer James Van Der Zee set the stage for life and culture in that northern Manhattan enclave—his photos include local bourgeois figures and glitterati, like one of “Josephine Baker in a Dior Dress at her cocktail party,” (1951). Circling back to Baudelaire, Matisse started working on a book of illustrations for the 19th century poet’s major work that Matisse completed in 1947. Carmen Lahens, a former Haitian dancer, served as a signal model for Matisse& during his evolving depictions. Lahens’ appearance referring to Manet’s Duval, the Caribbean female consort who inspired the poet Baudelaire and was shown earlier in both shows in a well known painting by Manet. As also illustrated in both accompanying American and French catalogues, Matisse’s close connection with his contemporary Lahens, and the development of the painter’s images of her, show how Matisse advanced from his more stereotypical depictions of Black figures to an infinitely more personalized portrayal. Earlier illustrations by such artists as Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, and Georges Rouault, focused on the dark, sinister aspects of the poems. Murrell demonstrates that the joyous nature of Carmen’s personality may have inspired Matisse to refocus his presentation to one of delicacy and luxe. Murrell’s synthesis and accumulation of images pull together such a scope of material that we realize such imagery demands to be grappled with and interrogated.
An exhibition as large and varied in concepts and materials as Le Modèle noir can be a challenge for the viewer. A collage of information, images, and ideas, the installation might have felt as overwhelming as it was immersive. As one wades through the murky waters of its subject, the structure the curators provided made the installation resonant and readily assimilable. Much is left to the viewer’s interpolation of its historical context. For many of the works here, neither the meaning of the image nor the intention of its creator were entirely clear. Such an exercise in understanding and interrogating the past offers valuable currency for today. We come to realize that the profuse imagery generated at the birth of the modern media, a common term for the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, is but distant mirror of the quotidian assault of visuals we navigate in today’s digital world.
Inevitably the exhibition continued the trajectory that began with issues of identity, multiculturalism, and subjectivity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Murrell and the French team then honed-in on and exploded the impact of colonialism and racism for just one nation. France is a country, like many others, that swept much of that material under its historical rug. But this single-nation approach also bodes well for how the future may open up those histories embedded in the old-line nationalist ethos and the deeply entrenched institutions created in their shadow. One thinks here of the complexity of Tate Britain’s mission in the wake of its separation from Tate Modern. Likewise, Courtney Martin, the incoming director for the Yale Center for British Art, has expressed that her mission there will be to expand the notion of Britain to add historical and contemporary expressions from its former colonies. The New York and Paris versions of Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse dealt with representation in both senses of the term. They opened up to representing lesser known or marginalized artists as well as focusing our attention on ignored or suppressed iconographies. This not only forced viewers to rethink the canon, but history itself.