Deconstructing Race in Western Painting — David Carrier

Hyperallergic, 12.07.2018

Recently a number of female and male black artists, many American, some French, have radically deconstructed the traditional schema of the active male artist depicting a passive female model, questioning its assumptions about gender and race. And so the most interesting part of the exhibition is this third part, the presentation of the black modernists, for here we enter relatively unfamiliar territory. 

We see very varied portraits of black women, including Norman Lewis’s confident-looking “Black Girl” (1936); William H. Johnson’s boldly painted “Portrait of a Woman with Blue and White Striped Blouse”(1940-42); and Romare Bearden’s Patchwork Quilt (1970), which depicts a black odalisque, lying face-down.

And, in radical revisions of early modernist interpretations, Faith Ringgold’s “Matisse’s Model (The French Collection, Part 1: #5)” (1991) shows Matisse, a black odalisque, and in the decorative background, an image of Matisse’s “The Dance” (1910); Ellen Gallagher’s “Odalisque (Self-Portrait with Freud as Matisse)” (2013) is a slide projection with Freud as the artist drawing a clothed Gallagher; and Mickalene Thomas’s “Marie: Nude black woman lying on a couch)” (2012) sets the black model in a contemporary interior filled with decorative fabrics. Finally, in Awoi Erizku’s “Elsa “(2013), a large color photograph of a sex worker, we return to Manet’s original conception, but now with a nude black woman alone in a spare room.

This exhibition reveals something about the apparent limitations and ultimate strengths of a social history of art. Compared with literature, visual art taken just by itself generally offers a relatively thin record of cultural history. To comprehend the politics of race (and gender) in France, you need to supplement the art of Manet and Matisse with historical research. (We do know, however, all too much about Baudelaire’s essentially unedifying political ideas.)

Here, then, the lavish exhibition catalogue, which fills in a great deal of useful background information about the relevant history, is essential. At its conclusion, Murrell speaks of “the recuperation of lost or marginalized histories” as defining “the present globalized moment.” That is exactly what this exhibition accomplishes, and that’s why her show speaks to our pressing contemporary political concerns.

Just as the American Republic prospered by extending its franchise to African-Americans and women, transforming in stages its ruling institutions, so the modernist artistic tradition of Manet and Matisse has developed and survived by being supple enough to critique and reject its sexist and racist elements, and thus make space for those thus far excluded.