Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 2016
Adrienne L. Childs and Susan H. Libby, eds. Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 262 pp.; 9 color ills.; 49 b/w ills. Cloth $114.95 (9781409422006)

In 1960, Dominique and John de Menil instituted a project to study images of persons of African descent in Western art. As Adrienne Childs and Susan Libby note in the introduction to their edited volume, Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century, that project, which began as a photographic archive, was initiated in response to segregation and racial discrimination in the United States. The Menil’s undertaking eventually culminated in a series of five books, republished by Harvard University Press, along with three new volumes, the last appearing in 2014 (click here for review). The present work makes clear its debt to that massive endeavor, and in particular to the volume on the nineteenth century, not only in art-historical terms but broader ideological ones as well (David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I, Part 2: Black Models and White Myths, new edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). Similarly, Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century assembles studies on a wide range of subjects that, taken together, reveal not just the relevance of images of “blacks” and “blackness” to studies of the nineteenth century, but constitute a compelling argument for how integral an awareness of the issues raised by those images should be to any account of the art of the period.

While the notion of “images of blacks and blackness” can only have added urgency in the Ferguson-era racial dynamics of the United States at present, the authors make little reference to contemporary culture. Yinka Shonibare’s La Méduse (2008) is invoked in the introduction—not to pull the nineteenth-century material forward so much as to set the terms for the historian’s retrospective view into the nineteenth century. That glance is predicated on an awareness of linked themes of absence and a violence that is both actual and representational. As Childs and Libby write, “Shonibare’s hyper-realist version of the vessel in tumultuous seas prefigures not only the shipwreck, but also the cataclysmic upheaval of the entire colonial project. Without depicting one African body, the artist suggests the horror of the slave trade, the dynamics of the European presence in Africa, and complexities of the African presence in European art” (1).

Described this way, Shonibare’s work, with its material histories, with its elements surrounding and forming the ship that is a vessel for bodies, is an apt metaphor for the essays that follow, which on the one hand keep their subject, the black body and its representations, firmly in view, while also acknowledging its elusiveness and complexity. Childs and Libby prominently cite Paul Gilroy’s notion of the black Atlantic as a counter-discourse of modernity, and many of the essays show how “the black body caught in the sights of the nineteenth-century European eye became a star performer in the spectacle of modernity” (3). The assembled authors pursue this concern with black bodies as performers ambivalently placed on the stage of European culture, possessing agency while being forced to play prescribed roles and read out the lines of a script. But this is also a heavily contextualizing volume, with many of the authors delineating the theater in which the spectacle played out: its audience and the structure of nineteenth-century racial discrimination as it intersected with representation and aesthetic discourses.

In terms of structure and method, Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century refuses to share the encyclopedic ambitions of the Menil series; instead, it partakes of the current art-historical suspicions about teleological accounts and grand narratives, preferring to remain episodic in its account of the nineteenth century. Thus, a tremendously varied set of characters are brought before the reader, both as the object of representation and as artists themselves, such as the African American actor Ira Aldridge, the New Orleans-born ex-pat sculptor Eugène Warburg, the black French minstrel performer Chocolat, and Edvard Munch’s model Sultan Abdul Karim. As the authors elaborate, in varying ways and degrees these figures were at times able at times to represent themselves, to negotiate both racial and commercial discursive networks, and to fashion careers and identities for themselves that challenged existing conventions and preconceived notions of expected roles. At the same time, however, each struggled against those expectations and the institutional and societal barriers that were both created and then reinforced by them.

Earnestine Jenkins’s essay on Aldridge, for example, shows that while the actor was never able to break through the racial barriers to perform on the highest levels of the London stage, his renditions of Othello in provincial cities paradoxically allowed him to forge his own identity and also create new opportunities for black performers. As Jenkins discusses, James Northcote’s portrait of Aldridge/Othello (ca. 1826) resists placing the subject into easy racial categories, instead “reminding us of the full breadth of character and humanity that non-European men such as the African-American actor Ira Aldridge or Shakespeare’s Moor could possess” (121). In two other cases that trace the relations of white artists with black subjects, both Alison Chang and Wendy Grossman argue that Munch and Robert Demachy, respectively, undermine racial categories and stereotypes, even as they are ineluctably working within racist discursive networks. As such, these essays significantly expand our sense of modernism’s interaction with persons of African descent. At the same time, this attention to white artists is balanced against Paul Kaplan’s account of the mixed-race sculptor Warburg. Warburg’s position in relation to slavery and abolition is also ambivalent, as an ex-slave who funded his own travel to Europe with the sale of slaves. As a result, readers are given a complex picture of the interpenetration of issues of race, racism, slavery, and post-emancipation with aesthetics in biographical, formal, and thematic terms.

This is, by and large, not a heavily theoretical set of texts, which is not to say that they lack theoretical nuance, but instead that the authors are generally satisfied to rely on readers’ knowledge of a number of texts that are cited throughout by Homi Bhabha, Gilroy, Sander Gilman, Charmaine Nelson, and, of course, Edward Said to establish the parameters of the analysis in order to elaborate an account of the historical conditions within which they wish to place their actors. In the end, those conditions receive the most attention here, and they are brought richly to bear on a diverse set of images that range, pleasingly, from high to low, from masterpieces like Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) to a lesser-known, late-career work by Munch; from anonymous revolutionary prints of the 1790s to posters and illustrations depicting black minstrelsy in late nineteenth-century France and academic paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Thus, the volume as a whole takes on a very different feel from the dense theorization and close reading that one encounters, in different ways to be sure, in the work of Marcus Wood or Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, for instance. Indicative of the range of methodological approaches that this material can support, one discovers instead in Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century an effective contextual approach in which discrete geographical and temporal moments are brought together to tell a complex, multifaceted story of race and aesthetics.

Some terms and concepts might have benefited from more sustained attention in the introduction or elsewhere, but in fact much of this nuance is created through the actual work of the essays themselves. The status of the delimiting category “European” in particular is a case in point. In one sense, the usage is fairly consistent with so much art history to date: it refers to Western Europe, and primarily France. Britain is a significant secondary presence here, and then Munch is usefully brought in at the end to include Scandinavia. But if this does little to expand the idea of “Europe” geographically, the inclusion of figures of African descent certainly revises a conceptual sense of what the parameters of “European art” might be. Furthermore, a number of the texts—Kaplan’s, James Smalls’s, and Chang’s, for instance—indicate the interpenetration of art and culture across European nations, suggesting an ever-richer framework for future study. Even more, a number of texts invoke trans-Atlantic exchanges as a central part of their historicizing work. Indeed, while the introduction claims particular status for European representations of blacks and blackness as opposed to the “over-simplified and unabashedly racist caricatures often found in American visual culture of the same period” (2), references to American art and to the United States abound throughout the text. One understands the distinction the editors are making, but ultimately I think the essays themselves suggest the possibility for a more nuanced approach to American art of the period as well.

Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century presents a wealth of material and evidence of the effectiveness of a contextual art-historical approach in dealing with imagery in relation to questions of race and racism. In the process, its essays suggest the outlines of an altered framework for an art history of the nineteenth-century that would be integrative, alert to contradiction and ambivalence, and flexible in the way that it treats questions of agency, identity, and representation for both black and white artists.

Leo Costello
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Rice University