Review: In Carpeaux show at the Met, a seductive and disturbing representation of race

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NEW YORK — In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art carried out a vast and revealing survey of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, one of the main European sculptors of the 19th century. He left the impression of an artist of extraordinary talent and inventiveness, perhaps not as great as his compatriot Rodin, but close enough.

Carpeaux was the Brahms of Rodin’s Wagner. He was inventive but with a classic bent, and a tendency to sweetness that sometimes turned into saccharine. He also served power shamelessly, making flattering, even kitsch, images of the royal court and the family of Napoleon III under the Second Empire.

Since that investigation, the Met has acquired another key work by Carpeaux, one of two marble busts of a female slave, known by the words inscribed on its plinth, “Why Born Enslaved!” Today the museum has mounted a smaller but much more focused exhibition devoted to this work, including versions in terracotta, clay and plaster, as well as other sculptures, medallions and decorative pieces referencing the abolitionist movement. in France and its colonies. It is accompanied by a book of in-depth essays on the role of ethnography and colonialism in shaping the representation of people of African descent in France in the 19th century.

“Why born a slave!” is a disturbingly compelling image of a woman, with a rope cutting through her exposed arms and breasts, and a defiant but anguished look on her furrowed face. The original of what has become a widely reproduced luxury item – Empress Eugenie owned and prominently displayed a copy – was made in 1868, just three years after slavery ended in the United States, but 20 years after the abolition of slavery in France. settlements. Unlike an equally famous image of abolition, that of Josiah Wedgwood c. 1787 medallion of a kneeling, chained black man imploring the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” », the bust of Carpeaux is a postlude to slavery in France, more a patriotic exercise of congratulations than a direct appeal to conscience. And that makes it particularly problematic.

If slavery was already abolished, what feelings is this bust supposed to inspire? The essays in the catalog emphasize the evident sensuality of woman, the erotic drama of her captivity, and the way that invites viewers, especially men, to objectify her for visual gratification. They also raise doubts about the depth and sincerity of Carpeaux’s anti-slavery views and, by extension, the sincerity of France’s belief in the true equality of peoples in its vast empire.

“Why born a slave!” is presented as an exercise in 19th-century ethnography, an effort to codify and generalize racial types, which became intertwined with a larger project of assimilating colonial subjects into a universal idea of ​​citizenship and French identity.

At the Whitney Biennial, Serious Art for a Serious Time

Ethnographic sculpture was perversely complicated with a wild mix of goals and motivations, and this exhibit does a good job of revealing that complexity. On the one hand, it involved a new and more rigorous look at his subjects, an effort to portray people of different races not according to the conventions of academic art, but through a real attention to the world and its variety. And we can’t watch “Why Born Enslaved!” (and other sculptures in the exhibition, including the sumptuous works of contemporary Carpeaux Charles Henri Joseph Cordier) without feeling the presence of real people as source and inspiration at some point in the creative process. In the case of Carpeaux’s bust, it may have been Louise Kuling, a black woman from Norfolk, then living in Paris.

But the new and more rigorous effort to look at the world was also part of the pseudoscientific goal of making broad generalizations about races and their essential nature, with a hierarchy in which the white male artist of Paris was the natural arbiter. of all accolades. Cordier, who draped his African figures in flowing robes of marble or bronze, may have been in search of the beauty unique to other races. But the particular beauty he found and the way he dressed his characters with classical references suggests that he mythologized his subjects in a decidedly European sense of what was appealing and universal.

The Met exhibition, which includes around 35 objects, presents two contemporary works that bear witness to the shadow cast by the bust of Carpeaux. Kehinde Wiley’s “After La Négresse, 1872” is made of cast marble dust and resin, showing a young black man wearing a Lakers jersey, his head turned in the same awkward manner as the Carpeaux figure he refers to . It was one of a series of 250, and the overt commercialism of its reproduction refers to the commercial forces that drove Carpeaux to make multiples of his work. He also casually appropriates the eroticism of the original, recasting it in homoerotic terms.

Far more substantial and moving is Kara Walker’s “Négresse” from 2017, a plaster cast made from Carpeaux’s bust, but exposed on the ground, lit by a single light. The plaster appears as a void delimited by the famous anguished face, and suggests both the desire and the futility of any effort to penetrate “inside” the head of the stranger who modeled for Carpeaux.

This gesture encapsulates the darkest question raised by the show: what happens when we gaze intently at this face in front of us? Does our gaze simply prolong the exploitation that Carpeaux dramatizes and engages in at the same time? Does she recolonize this woman and, by extension, all women of color? Is there any innocent participation in this exhibition?

The National Gallery studies the multiple histories of the African diaspora

Certain essays in the catalog clearly suggest that there can be no pleasure in this object that is not fundamentally an extension of the violence it is supposed to condemn. This makes this Carpeaux exhibition a much darker undertaking than that of 2014, which acknowledged the complexity of the artist and his intimate engagement with the corrupt and imperial forces that ruled France at the time. But the stakes on the 2014 show weren’t quite as high, and the guilty pleasure could be torn from its darker imputations.

There is no such offer here. That leaves this bust, in its many iterations, in a curious place. He embodies a story that needs to be told and he involves us in that story. He does this because it is a very successful artistic object, clearly expressive, dramatic and engaging. We leave with the paradoxical feeling of being both condemned and privileged to live with it, because it casts an increasingly long shadow over the history of races and representations.

Fictions of emancipation: Redesign of Carpeaux Until March 5, 2023, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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