Posing Modernity

by Long Nguyen

Diversity and inclusiveness have been the latest buzzwords in the fashion industry. The industry is prone to making amends: over exclusion of racial representations in the creation of the images; over advertising campaigns that feature models wearing an assortment of a particular brand’s clothes and accessories; or over casting of live runway shows.

Fashion shows in international capitals like New York, Paris, or Milan are monitored by independent observers, providing details such as total number of non-white models, size, and age diversity. For example, models of color walked in 44.8 percent of the Spring 2019 shows in New York.

The fact that the fashion community has embraced diversity of not only race, but size and age as well, serves achievement. In 1962, for the first time, French designer Yves Saint Laurent employed a black female model named Fidelia, casting her in a seminal haute couture show prior to launching his namesake company. Couture fashion in Paris in the early 60s, shown on black models, was deliberate. It struck down the rigid social and political order dominated by patriarchy, Saint Laurent an early outlier embracing black women in his aesthetic vision.

The designer’s use of a black female model was not a one-time token. Rather, it was a lifelong commitment to diversity, employing models like Iman, Sonia Cole, and Dalma Callado, among others. Laurent even helped Naomi Campbell earn her first cover for Vogue Paris in August 1988, a first for the French fashion publication.

Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, an exhibit currently at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, shows the evolution of black female representation, from that dawn in Paris to portraits of the contemporary, self-possessed and self-controlled, characteristic of today’s black artists.

The exhibit shows how the black figure has evolved from a figure in the background to one in the foreground. It does this through myriads of paintings, early photographs, etchings, sculptures canvases, Harlem Renaissance art, and other facets. It features works by such great artists as Manet, Matisse, Bazille, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Mickalene Thomas, among many more.

Many precedents led to such an exhibit being possible. 1850’s Paris, after the decree to end all slavery in 1948, was a city in the midst of vast social, economic, and political change. It saw the rise of new social classes. New artists emerged, taking notice of these societal transformations, inaugurating a new era of art that broke with the rigid codes inherent to the previous century’s heavy focus on traditionalism.

New brush strokes dominated the page. Pictorial constructions reflected a new, emergent Paris. People in the changing capital city became subjects, predicating the rise of modern art that juxtaposed against the official taste of the French academia.

For a painter like Manet, this expressionism of new Parisian lifestyle meant the erection of firm social boundaries. Hierarchy and dress, in official art, would no longer serve as a pillar in life. “It is impossible to discuss the dawn of modern art without looking at one of the paintings that anchored the movement,” said Denise Murrell, the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar who curated the exhibition. Posing Modernity stems from her 2014 PhD dissertation. She continues, “The model in the painting [Olympia] was not portrayed as totally exotic in the manner of orientalism but a real individual.”

Clearly, Bazille’s 1870 La toilette reaffirmed the servile notion of black women in paintings that concocted modernism, though far from affirming anything hinting at equal status. Perhaps the photographic portrait of a mixed race writer, or of Dolores Serral de Medina Coelli by the photographer Félix Nadar, reinforced a sense of dignity and equal treatment. Further challenging the social stratification of 19th century Paris were paintings like Manet’s 1862 portrait of Jeanne Duval; a mistress to the poet Charles Baudelaire. Edgar Degas’ 1879 etching of Miss Lala, a mixed race acrobat at the Fernando Circus, is yet another example of this equality expressionism.

In the exhibition, Henri Matisse builds a bridge between the mid-19th and the mid-20th century representation of the black figure in modern art. This bridge spanned the influence of artists in Harlem in the 20s and 30s as part of the Harlem Renaissance and the ‘New Negro’ artists like Charles Alston and Laura Wheeler Waring. Waring’s paintings respectively portrayed the ordinary lives of black Americans living in Harlem. These paintings were devoid of the stereotypes in their 1860s French counterparts - elevating the beauty of ordinary people onto canvas without prejudice and racial division.

William H. Johnson’s 1939’s Nude (Mahlinda) of a black nude model laid on a white sheet was directly inspired by Olympia. “These black artists erased the racial stereotypes and rendered the reality of Harlem life in portraits of modern city life - not as fantasy but as real,” said Murrell.

Before his extended visit and stay in Harlem where he visited Jazz clubs and became acquainted with black dancers, Matisse’s paintings dwelled on the modes of ‘orientalism.’ They bespoke a European harem fantasy: Colonial conquest of North Africa with white women in harem pants and kaftans amidst abundant faux oriental Arab accouterments. But Matisse’s 1946 Dame à la robe blanche and Jeune femme en blanc as well as his many depictions of Haitian and Martinique natives, represented a stark departure from orientalist past. Before Matisse spent time in Harlem in the 30s, his work depicted a different treatment of the female black model. However, his work in the 40s changed yet again as it was, “A departure from the harem mode to a more formal aspect of painting a new lifestyle of these women and black women as icons of beauty,” said Murrell.

The centrality of the black female figure in modern art continues to evolve today. “The influence of Manet and Matisse can be seen in the work of Romare Bearden and now Mickalene Thomas,” explained Murrell. Thomas’ 2012 Din, une très belle négresse #1 and Elizabeth Colomba Laure (Portrait of a negress) presents today’s view of black women as the focal point of the paintings. Similarly, the legacy of Olympia is directly reprised and reinterpreted by several artists that included Aimé Mpane’s 2013 Olympia II, Awol Erizku’2 2013 Elsa, Maud Sulter’s 2002 Jeanne: A Melodrama I, and Jean Pierre Schneider’s 2010 La servant du 3 II 10, homage to Manet’s Olympia albeit with their own twists on art history but with the subject of their own sexuality.

The female black model in modern art has evolved from an initial phase of servitude in the mid-19th century to the women seen by the Harlem Renaissance artists to the full embrace of freedom and independence as expressed today. But art reflects the people living in each respective era and what was depicted in a painting then or in an advertising campaign now matters because they represent a mirror to society. How a person of any race is treated in art and in visual representation is often how that person is being treated in real life. The imprint of art should include all forms of visual representations – and yes how the female black model is painted reveals how she may be treated in reality. To be seen on canvas at the dawn of modern art is to exist and perhaps to matter.

Posing Modernity will continue on March 10, 2019, in an expanded version at Paris Musés d’Orsay, including the depiction of the black male figure.