Traditional museums are literally places of conservation. They are designed to freeze objects in time, to protect them from change. Too often, the conservative impulse extends to institutional thinking, which leaves cultural ideals and values embodied in objects embalmed in beauty and grandeur, and left there.
In reality, of course, everything about art changes all the time. In the material realm, molecules keep moving. And the values, benign and poisonous, expressed in the objects of the past are in the air that we breathe. Inevitably, arts institutions, so steeped in tradition, must also change if they are to survive.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is trying to do just that based on a recent and ongoing series of reflection-style exhibits. Two of them, “The African Origin of Civilization” and “The Day Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” are long-term. A third, polemically piquant “Fictions of emancipation: Carpeaux Recast”, now joins them.
Like its predecessors, the new show is small, thematic, and set in an offbeat space: a sort of passageway between the Medieval Sculpture Hall and the Robert Lehman Wing. (The Met’s exhibition design manager, Daniel Kershaw, has done a good job of a difficult task here.) Built around objects from the museum’s collections and planned to run for a year , the show looks like a test site for how the museum’s permanent collection galleries could, with imaginative organization, look.
The centerpiece is a marble sculpture, originally titled “Négresse” and renamed “Why Born Enslaved!”, by 19th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875). A life-size, bust-length image of an anguished-looking black woman stretched against a rope binding her arms, it was based on a plaster model made in 1868, and it is, like the show, a a sort of joker insert into the museum’s stilted historical narrative.
The piece arrived at the Met in 2019, the first acquisition made by the new curator in charge of the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Sarah E. Lawrence. She immediately brought it into prominence among the 18th and 19th century works of Petrie’s European Court of Sculpture, where it was the only image of a black subject.
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And it’s a complicated picture, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first glance. As a dramatization of captivity, it’s graphically alive. The woman’s face, clouded by complex emotions, is as specific as a portrait. His twisted neck and loose hair suggest sudden pain, as does the rope stretching across his chest and biting into his exposed chest. The sculpture’s date of creation places it in a post-emancipation period of Western history. (Slavery was technically abolished in France in 1794 and again in 1848; in the British Empire in 1833; and in the United States in 1865). Yet the reality is still alive here, making the image feel like a powerful gesture of protest, which can be seen as undiminished in the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter era.
It would be easy, and gratifying, to take Carpeaux’s image as a principled response to social injustice. But was it? The exhibit — curated by Elyse Nelson, assistant curator of the European Sculpture Department, and Wendy S. Walters, poet and associate professor of writing at Columbia University — says, fundamentally, no. And he makes his case by examining 38 other ostensibly liberating images of black subjects that predate and postdate this one.
Some objects were, indeed, intended to be politically instrumental. The oldest of these in the exhibition is a cameo-sized porcelain “anti-slavery medallion” made around 1787 by the enterprising British potter Josiah Wedgwood. Designed to be worn as a badge, it bears the image of a kneeling, nearly naked black man, his chained hands raised as if pleading, his figure encircled by the words “Am I not a man and a brother ?
The medallion was originally created as a seal for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, to which Wedgwood belonged. He made them by the thousands and they were taken up as a fashion accessory by the general public. Additionally, the image of the kneeling man had wide transatlantic circulation, appearing in prints and decorating household items. What began as a promotional device for a progressive political cause morphed into something else: a commodified emblem of black abjection and white paternalism that would contribute to a growing trend in visual culture.
There are a few exceptions to this dynamic in the show. An engraved playing card made in 1793-94 during the French Revolution presents a very different picture of black liberation. Celebrating anti-racist resistance in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), the card depicts a fully clothed black man, carrying a gun and trampling underfoot in chains.
And an 1867 marble sculpture, “Forever Free,” by Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), a black and Anishinaabe American artist, offers an exultant vision of black male agency in the figure of a man standing and waving broken chains to the sky. .
But even when slavery was not the overt subject, the black image was captive to white control. One of the most popular French sculptors of the 19th century, Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (1827-1905), made repeated images of black figures, often based on live models, but essentially imprisoned them in an exotic fantasy , making them serve as an ethnography. types.
His 1848 bronze “Bust After Seid Enkess” is based on a real person, a formerly enslaved Sudanese, although Cordier changed his name and identity – “Said Abdallah”, “Negro From Timbuktu” – to market new editions of the original work. His 1851 bronze “Bust of a Woman” has the particularity of a portrait, but she has only been identified as “African Venus”. And the model’s figure in a later bust – itself a concoction of stunning luxury materials (onyx marble, gilded bronze, enamel and amethyst) – is dismissed with the reprimanding tag of “Woman of France”. Colonies.
In the catalog of the exhibition, the scholar James Smalls speaks of “carving as an act of colonization”, and it can be so. It is also, in some hands, an entrepreneurial project, which brings us back to “Why Born Enslaved!” by Carpeaux.
The bust, which Carpeaux has reproduced in various sizes and mediums – the Met also has a terracotta version, which is in the show – was intended from the outset as a luxury collector’s item. In 1867 the artist began designing a commissioned civic artwork, a fountain for the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Its main components were four female figures representing continents, including Africa. He appears to have used the same studio model – his name is not recorded – for both the full-length African figure and the “Why Born Enslaved!” bust, and released the bust well before the fountain is not over.
As it turns out, the fountain’s critical reception was mixed, but “Négresse” was a hit as soon as it was shown at the Paris Salon of 1869. (The original marble bust that appeared there is now in the Ny Museum). Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen; the Met is a second version sculpted in 1873.) Its success was partly due to the timing and a particular tension of political awakening in the air. . Although the formal abolition of slavery in Europe and the United States was then achieved, the images relating to it are still in vogue. The same was true for the images that reminded Europeans of their generous colonial properties in Africa and the Caribbean.
To get a sense of the cultural context, it is useful to remember that in 1869 the Emperor Napoleon III, who relentlessly pursued French domination in Africa and whose patronage Carpeaux assiduously sought, purchased a copy of “Pourquoi né clave !” as a gift for his art-loving wife, Empress Eugénie.
And what did they and their collector-class contemporaries see in this work? A politically timely emblem, which expressed sympathy for the downtrodden, but also depicted the downtrodden as staunchly downcast and dependent on white benevolence to lift themselves up. And some of those eyes may also have seen what seems unmistakable today, an eroticized image of female servitude, a sickening mix of sympathy and sadism.
And they may also have seen then what I see now – all of the above, but also a work of deep and complex beauty; one that is emotionally moving and thought-provoking beyond anything its creator could have imagined. It’s the object the Met both preserves and exhibits in this investigative show, creating a template that could have far-reaching applications for a critical overhaul of its permanent collection displays.
Fictions of emancipation: Redesign of Carpeaux
Until March 5, 2023, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.