On ViewMetropolitan Museum of Art
March 10, 2022–March 5, 2023
The centerpieces of the exhibition are seen from afar, backlit by the Lehman Ring rotunda: back-to-back terracotta and marble versions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s La Négresse, later entitled Why Born Enslaved! (modeled 1868, carved 1873). The installation is a set piece, and there is no mistaking the occasion as a marker—henceforward, the Metropolitan intends the collection to mix in the now, outside the walls, in the street, if possible.
In 2014, Carpeaux (1832–75) was the subject of the Met’s exhibition all about him, but this time around he and his model (unknown) are lead characters in a narrative of issues, in which a remouillage of his bust by Kara Walker is the last word. Her Negress (2017) makes one thing of all the declared subjects of the exhibition: emancipation, representation, type, and person, but it is a suggestive absence, rather than a tangible objet d’art … an empty mold from Carpeaux’s piece lies on the floor. Adroitly lit, the negative space inside appears solid, and the fugitive model appears like a ghost, at our feet.
Practically all the checklist items are French in origin, and nineteenth-century, but the exhibition speaks American to Americans, and has today on its mind. Just how did Carpeaux get into the middle of all this?
Ostensibly, the occasion is a recent acquisition (the marble), but the short answer is, he represents.
In his own day, he served.
A successful artist of the Second Empire was an integral tool of imperialism. Carpeaux might have seen that coming. At twenty-three he wrote, “I have to listen to them, and to talk and do as they do … one cannot serve two masters at once, I said to myself: let’s make a choice, the École is a question of my future and my existence…”
Eighteen years later, the busts were made for a fountain in Haussmann’s new Paris. The Four Parts of the World Supporting the Celestial Sphere is an open-work globe held aloft by female personifications of four continents, including Africa. Nearly bankrupted by the production of his Genius of the Dance (1869) for the Paris Opera, Carpeaux was compelled to spin off fragments from commissioned monuments to open-ended editions marketed directly to the public. But the bust ostensibly derived from Africa was not a fragment of the public work—the edition bust was purpose-built, nearly from scratch.
It was inscribed Pourquoi Naître Esclave!, but the subject was not born a slave. She is a grown woman now captive, arms bound behind her, bare-breasted, her gaze cranked upward across her right shoulder, on her knees. The bust is violence itself: it might well recall a blow and anticipate another. Only the stratified language of the piece, giving up its story by successive implications, makes the scene tolerably lookable… art did that, and the moral self-possession of the subject, whose name is lost, but whose person is yet her own. We were spared the worst. This captive grants us an escape, which might be the sticking moral error of the piece. We observe her, rather than ourselves.
Carpeaux’s Négresse came sidelong out of his thriving portrait practice. Some contributors to the Met’s day-long Fictions of Emancipation symposium didn’t get that—she’s a person, not a personification. Not a representation, not a type. Carpeaux’s other portraits of women are, in a word, superb. The lot of them make a vivacious adjunct to the observation-rich literature of the nineteenth century. They are, first of all, warm, then superlatively stylish and unabashedly self-assertive; albeit each is a story told by understatements tacitly understood between artist and subject. These women of society, his friends, are serenely positive of their sovereignty, as was his Négresse, until she was stripped of everything they have and left nothing but person, nakedness, and rope. An affront to subject and artist, her striking beauty is set within a deliberate, unflickering sobriety of style that is untypical of Carpeaux. It enlarges her brooding agitation, which despite the plain message of the piece’s title, is still mysteriously unpeaceable today.
There is no doubt that she is an accusation of empire, but by 1848 France realized statutory Emancipation, so in 1868 the piece could be taken for a comfortable statement of political business over and done—a self-congratulation, which the emperor purchased in marble (and the Empress Eugenie exchanged for bronze). But not by Carpeaux, who, though we take him for the Second Empire’s exemplary artist, never fit in. He identified with his model, rather as he did his other sitters—all but intimately. However well he understood his place, Carpeaux apparently resented being used and using himself—one sees it, in her.
The plethora of exhibition contents, which include practically all media but photography, literally orbit the Carpeaux busts. Two contemporary artists were built into the otherwise historical exhibition: Kara Walker’s aforementioned Negress and Kehinde Wiley’s After La Négresse, 1872 (2007) which, like the original, is editioned. Wiley kept the pose and swapped the captive woman for a young man in a Lakers jersey, swathed in classical drapery, on a pedestal. He doesn’t seem obviously captive. He is not necessarily a richly rewarded star athlete, either. Nor perhaps any less endangered than the Négresse. The piece lives on ironies that cut in all directions, dangerous even to itself.
Apart from Walker and Wiley’s targeted references, in this exhibition the past does the talking. The words: captions, catalog, conference, and online posts are recontextualization but of course the objects are simply themselves, as ever. Their conversation comes down to the interchange between Carpeaux’s Pourquoi Naître Esclave! and Charles Cordier’s (1827-1905) Négresse des colonies (1851), later known as Vénus africaine.
Cordier was a considerable professional, whose career was made by contemporary ethnography, such as it was. He became “official sculptor” to the French National Museum of Natural History. It was Cordier, not Carpeaux, who went and saw Africa for himself, and as to canons, said, “beauty is not the province of a privileged race,” and “the most beautiful negro is not the one who looks most like us.” A good start, but not enough. Cordier’s success began in the street, pure chance, when he bumped into an African-born model, a real person. However, we can’t find Seïd Enkess (his name survived) in Cordier’s Saïd Abdallah (1848)—also called Nègre de Tomboctou. Type intervened. Representation ensued. The you-me one-to-one traffic which makes portrait life, didn’t rule. Cordier didn’t make his Nègre, or his Vénus, of himself.
The exhibition program necessarily arrives at the nature of the sitter-portrait relationship. The hot issues originate at the notional “person,” but beside a living individual, with history written in their face, and looking back, person is just a word. And Cordier’s Vénus is just a curio. But Kara Walker’s Negress and Carpeaux’s Négresse live, and matter. How, and why? By using the vanished sitter like a shoemaker who makes soles of leather, they made ideas and issues, presence and absence out of flesh and blood.