Emancipation Emanations- Art as a Catalyst for Contemplation
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
Reflections on Sculptures in an Exhibition- At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
One iconic head study from 19th century France inspired an exhibit in a relatively small ancillary gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I viewed this show titled, "Fictions of Emancipation" comprissed mostly of sculpture but with other objects including a very fine profile portrait by Jean Leon Gerome.
The centeral and key piece is a sculpted bust of an African woman depicted with arms bound behind her with rope, while at once showing a sensually exposed breast and the grimace and worry of the suffering of enslavement. These dichotomous aspects are explored in great depth in the accompanying catalog with essays by several noted art historians and curators. There are acutally two busts of the same woman on adjacent pedestals in the center of the room- and a fascinating placement it is. The sculptor, Jean Baptist Carpeaux a French Sculptor of the 19th century is the author of these two works. The fascinating and engaging quality of the placement by the curators of the terracotta version and the white marble version allows for us viewers to see the same pose from different angles simultaneously. This seems to underscore the essential aspect of sculpting, which is to present a subject in the round. Unlike painting, which is restricted to the two-dimensional surface- we have here at once two views at once. We recall the ungoing rivalry in the renaissance between scupting and painting. The sniping and swiping of the two camps all seems so unnecessary today.
I was sketching while in the gallery, and the two heads were lined up so that I could see both at once- as if a mirror were behind the terracotta head but showing a white clarified version behind. I was attracted to the Carpeaux pieces for their beauty, virtuosity and remarkable characterization of a human being. In otherwords, purely aesthetic reasons. The twisting pose, has a contrapposto dynamic reminiscent of the the best works of the Italian Renaissance including Michelangelo's own carved slave and many others. Having such a remarkable head and torso, held still in ideal spot light, is a rare opportunity. Even photos of the scupture do not do justice to actually being there and being able to walk around this art. It recalled the few times that I have sculpted, once being in a class at the Pennsylvania Acacemy of Arts. The process of walking around the model with clay on my stand while sculpting was a fascinating experience.
The other piece in the show that enthralled me was a bronze bust of an African woman, also from the 19th century, This one titled (sometimes) Venus Africaine is by another 19th century French sculptor, ."Charles Cordier. The darkness of this medium made the sketching more challenging as the nuances of light are more difficult to observe. Not only that, the spot light from above created nice chiaroscuro, but at times the it was reversed, sort of negative-like effect. The beauty of this understated leaning pose was remarkable and the flesh beneath the cloth and almost the breath was palpable. Both the Cordier and Carpueax pieces could be said to be vignettes as they cropped the arms and torso in such a way as to present the upper torso by itself without arms.
As mentioned, I was drawn to draw these pieces out of admiration for what the expressed and the virtuous accomplishments of the sculptors. The title of the exhibit and the catalog open up a complex array of issues and political considerations. The authors of the essay present a host of legitamate concerns about he portrayal of slavery. Both Carpeaux and Cordier held beliefs that were entirely sympathetic to the abolition of slavery. We are reminded that France and England were decades ahead of the American efforts to end slavery. It was a complicated history however with France being a part of the slave trade and owning islands with sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The driving forces of imperialism, capitalism and racial inequities are all intertwined. In short, the study of the issues that the authors of the catalog unpacked, made the individual pieces more complete.
There is considerable ink spilled in the book about the double standards of the artists, if not the assertion of unethical power imbalances. For example, is it morally justified for a white man in a position of power to be portraying a black woman in a subservient roll? A loaded question and not just a rhetorical one either. Still, it seems like imposing twenty-first century sensiblities and hot button issues back into an era when they were not present. Then there is the issue brought up about both sculptors, who are accused of not really portraying an individual but veering off into portraying a type or as it is characterized, ethnographic studies. This is nothing new, this practice in 17th century Holland was called depicting "Tronies" or archetypes. These are seemingly legitmate concerns. Still, I am wondering about so much of great art- for examples Michelangelo's many sculpted and painted pieces that were inspired by individual models but go on to transcend individuality. They give us visages and images that offer a higher and even more universal ideal. We haven't felt it necessary to undermine or criticize these noble and efforts to exalt and give hope.
Here is quote from the catalog, an essay by Professor James Smalls that encapsulates some of the scholarly concerns.
" The reading of Carpeaux's bust as sexualized underscores the work's ambiguity. Carpeaux's enslaved woman is at once defiant and yet subjugated to any and all desires projected upon her. The work accomplishes two seemingly paradoxical goals simultaneously: it speaks the humanitarian language of protest against human bondag as unjust, provoking indignatinos from its viewers, while at the same time encouraging fantasies of possession and ownership, The enslaved individual is reduced to an emblem of both outrage and titillation."
Hmm, well this unpacks it and along with the attendant associations- yet one wonders about signing on to all of Smalls assertions as fact. Sometimes a tablua rassa may be better and just enter the show with an at-face-value attitude could be more beneficial.
The catalog's essayists find exception of the allegorizing nature of the works, as if this is part of the transgressions of the artists. Has not allegory been a central aspect of art for centuries and would not we be less without these creations? We again think of Michelangelo's work as he is perhaps the apogee of using the human form and portrait to express something transcendental. Are we to get our nose out of joint for the model being a vehicle for a higher purpose?
I have been a fan of Carpeaux's work for many years. There is remarkalbe marble figurative ensemble by Carpeaux in a neaby gallery in the Met. This multi-figure work is a larger-than-life size marble depicting a scene from Dante's Inferno of the death of the Pisan traitor Ugolino della Gherardesca and his sons. They were imprisoned in a tower in Pisa- finally the doors were nailed shut- allowing for no more food. This causing the father to overcome his sorrow at his children's death and resort to canablism. A gruesome story indeed. Would we fault Dante or Carpeux for portraying the incident in the poem or in marble? Are they exploiting a tragedy as opportunists? This is part of the implication of some of the essayists in the Fictions of Emancipation catalog.
Above- A painting by the author with the group in the foreground and the single figure in the back all based on sculptures by Carpeaux. This 36" x 40" oil on on linen is titled "Pleiadeas Dance. " The title is derived from the constellation of the seven sisters.
The title of the show, Fcitions of Emancipation, and the title of the central piece by Carpeaux, "Why Born Enslaved!" are worthy and appropriate here too. After all, there are many less-than-fully realized aspects of emancipation. The long road to racial equality is still being worked out in tragic and complicated ways today, long after Linclon's Emancipation Proclamation. The title of Carpeaux's piece- ending in an exclamation point, rather than a question mark is a curioius peculiarity. It is finally mentioned in the last essay in the book- but with inconclusive results.
Above - Jean Leon Gerome's painting of 1866 depicting a slave market.
I mentioned the wonderful painting in the exhibit by Gerome, a nineteenth century French painter but also a sculptor of significance. His paintings are exquisite accomplishments of refinement in the highly-finshed academic tradition of Ingres. One of his paintings, not in this show, that would have fit perfectly is his canvas of a slave market, which is part of the Clark Institute's holdings. The subject, although superbly done, depicts a beautiful woman on the auction block, or prior to it, having her teeth and mouth prodded by the fingers or would be buyer. The commodification of the person and dehumanization is unforgettable. I wonder if this young woman, was part of the spoils of war when an Ottoman force massacred the population of a town in Italy near Naples, Otranto in 1480. We don't usually think of the tragic circumstances leading up to slave markets or the woman depicted in Carpeaux's bust.
All in all, the exhibit provides a wonderful well spring for contemplation- whether it is for apprecating the beauty of form on its own merits or by delving into more of the accompanying issues.
To view a video of the sketches shown here go to this link-