Monday, July 15, 2019

Black models : from Géricault to Matisse (Temporary exhibition in Paris)

Interior of M'O
Being in Paris, last June, I went to see an unusual exhibition at the Orsay Museum. Called 'Black models: from Géricault to Matisse', this major collection presented not only paintings from famous masters or less known colored painters, but also sculptures, prints, documents, photographs, as well as various other items.
Exhibition poster
The brochure provided by M'O quoted: ”This exhibition […] seeks to look at the unspoken in art history: the importance of black models who had crossed paths with artists and who, in so doing contributed to the elaboration of their work. The goal is to give a name, a story to these neglected figures from modernist history by mirroring art history with anecdotes of ideas, sensibilities and depictions.” And it also further added: ”The intention is not to create an exhibition on the representations of black people as a social group but more to raise the question of 'model', which can be understood as both, the model represented by the artist and as the bearer of values.”(Laurence des Cars)

In order to explain the proposed exploratory path of the exhibition, it is best to continue quoting some more excerpts from the museum brochure.

What do the works evoking slavery from the 19thcentury reveal? The curator of the exhibition says:”Artists were caught up in the era's contradictions towards slavery.”
One of the paintings celebrating the abolitionist movement is a painting made by François-Auguste Biard and belonging to the Musée d'art of Clermont Ferrand. It says: ”The most well-known work in France remains Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies 27 April  by Biard. Commissioned by the State after the coming of the 2nd Republic, it glorified the restored Republican order and echoed the decree inspired by Victor Schœlcher, Under-Secretary of State for the Navy and for the colonies.”(Stéphane Guégan)
What do we know about black models in the 19thcentury? Another curator of the Musée d'Orsay writes: “One of the major ambitions of this exhibition was to find the identities of these studio models that have remained anonymous for so long.” There is also a second aspect on this enquiry that includes writers such as Alexandre Dumas or Théophile Gautier. “The exhibition also concerns the depictions of celebrities from the literary and performing arts.”(Isolde Pludermacher)
Vénus africaine
M'O caption
Femme d'Afrique centrale
M'O caption
Homme du Soudan français
M'O caption

What new reading of Olympia does the exhibition propose? The exhibition allows us to revisit one of Édouard Manet (1832-1883) famous work of art called Olympia (1863), which belongs to the Orsay Museum. On this painting, “which was presented for the first time at the 1865 Salon”, there is a black maid. She has been identified. “This is the first time we are exhibiting Manet's notebook, we can find written the name 'Laure, very beautiful black woman' […] around 1862.”( Isolde Pludermacher)
Olympia by Édouard Manet @ Musée d'Orsay
How has the representation of Blacks during the first half of the 20thcentury evolved? The turn of the century brings a new concept. “The relationship with the 'black model' began to transform. […] The avant-garde discovered the modeling potential of African statues and began to experiment with a new stylization dealing with a new approach to the model”(Cécile Debray). In the 1930s, “a new concept: négritude penned by poets such as Aimé Césaire, Sédar Senghor and Léon Gontran Damas wrote of an affirmation of identity, of black culture which resounded with the Harlem Renaissance (the resurgence of Afro-Amrican culture in New York) and the Surrealist's political causes.”(Cécile Debray)
Portrait of A.Dumas by Nadar
Alexandre Dumas
Baudelaire & Jeanne Duval
Jeanne Duval by Édouard Manet

M'O caption
Baudelaire's print of Jeanne Duval
What is the influence of Harlem on Henri Matisse? Visiting New York in 1930, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) “discovered the Harlem neighborhood in full renaissance, which was probably due to the photographer Van Vechten, a friend of the collector Gertrude Stein.” (Cécile Debray)
A painting by Matisse
M'O caption
Some Black Parisians. “This project consists of twelve large scale neons which highlight the names of some of the models, performers and writers who appear in important French works of art from the 19th and 20th centuries.” 
A poster featuring Joséphine Baker
Painting of Joséphine Baker

There was also an interesting feature around this exhibition. Some high school students were asked to contribute with their own inspiration. Some of their work were displayed separately.
I particularly liked the following painting:

The Musée d'Orsay is such an interesting place that I could not resist adding a few more shots of th premises that used to be a railway station.

A view of the rooftop restaurant
View of the main gallery

Another restaurant in the museum
The grand station clock

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