October 24, 2018 – February 10, 2019
Lenfest Center for the Arts
615 West 129th Street
Exceeding the Frame: Reframing, Renaming, and Other Forms of Exorcising Power
by Mayte López
Graduate Center, City University of New York
Art History taught me a lot. I understand the world that I live in because of Art History. I understand the world that I live in and my place in it: I don’t have one.
– Hanna Gadsby
left: Marie-Thèrese Walter au Chapeau, from the website https://bosakart.com/products/marie-therese-walter-au-chapeau-by-pablo-picasso
right: La Martiniquaise, from the Posing Modernity Exhibition Catalogue, pp. 140
During Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special Nannette (2018), the comedian discusses Pablo Picasso’s relationship with seventeen-year-old model Marie-Thèrese Walter, pointing out the problematic implications and consequences of acclaiming certain artists and their work without taking into consideration the context in which that work was developed. Does it matter, Gadsby asks, that Walter was underage at the time of her involvement with Picasso? Does it matter that the renowned painter, hailed not only for his talent but for his “overarching masculinity” can be quoted saying, “Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents?” It does, Gadsby asserts, and I am inclined to agree with her. Yet, for Pablo Picasso, we may be immediately reminded of the evergreen imperative to “separate the man from the art.” How are we to address this conundrum? How should we consider the contemporary resonance of certain images?
The exhibit Posing Modernity at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, curated by Denisse Murell, attempts to answer these questions and others through the reconsideration of specifically black women models in art. By enlarging narratives that have obliterated identities of black figures in art history, Posing Modernity traces and repositions black figures as active participants in society. The exhibit’s curatorial work portrays black women as part of modernity in the Parisian landscape, tracking the work and life of black women through painting, and thus providing a statement of social roles for women through history—roles other than sex, servitude or slavery. The exhibit counters racial stereotyping by placing these images under a new light. The paintings need not be changed, the artists need not be denied: context and relocation, we learn, can make a difference and provide perspectives that have been occluded or previously denied.
Accompanying Matisse’s La Martiniquaise, as well as some other drawings from the same series, is a plaque that immediately calls to mind Gadsby’s argument. Next to the work of art, the plaque describes the model, Catherine Roy-Meshuit, as twelve years old when she posed for the artist, and that her mother was present for the sitting. This information is usually unavailable to the viewer. Knowing that her mother was in the room provoked a sense of relief for me from the feeling of distress over the girl’s tender age. She was not left alone to the artist’s exploitation, but was in the company of another adult woman who cared for her. The context reveals an intimate and social dynamic of care around the young model, pulling her out of narratives of sexual exploitation even if she is painted devoid of this context. Here, context is crucial.
Where titles such as La négresse may relegate models to anonymity, to aesthetic and racialized paradigms, to mute black subjectivities, context permits us to think through tradition and reinvent it when looking at portraits of historically subjugated identities—a point discussed at the first panel of the symposium accompanying the exhibit, “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today Symposium,” held at The Forum at Columbia on November 9th, 2018. During this talk, Professor James Smalls asked whether we should rename works of art, and if so, how to do it. He asked, “Who has control over naming otherness,” to consider renaming, curating, and other forms of re-representation, as forms of exorcising power subjugations. Though Smalls also alluded to the simultaneity of certain images, such as the negress, as ambiguous emblems of both empowerment and subjugation in the dynamics of visuality, Posing Modernity is not about recasting the same pictures under different titles, but about trying to reignite and reclaim images of underrepresented bodies, placing them under a different light. It is perhaps a light that diminishes the shine of the artist and amplifies the fullness of the model, a light that responds to Picasso’s imperative to destroy the woman by showing that the woman did not and does not exist for the artist alone, but is also her own person, with connections, desires, and life that exists beyond the canvas.
Notably, during the lecture “Slave Portraiture and the Thresholds of Emancipation (A Caribbean Meditation)” presented at Columbia University only a few days after the Posing Modernity symposium, Professor Agnes Lugo-Ortiz revealed Rosa to be the name of the subject of José Manuel Ximeno con su criada negra y un corderito, by Spanish artist José María Romero. Lugo-Ortiz repeated the subject’s name throughout the lecture, even though it was not part of the original title.. In the lecture, Lugo-Ortiz alluded to the ambiguous nature of the portrayal of bodies destined for the reproduction of sexual violence, discussing these figures as constructed by liminality themselves, and making a call to think about that which exceeds the frame.
“Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid”, said Alain Locke referring to the artistic movement of the Harlem Renaissance, which is also a part of the exhibit. Indeed, contextualization in art, as Posing Modernity shows, discovers not only beauty, but manages to retrieve otherwise obliterated subjectivities, forcing us to think, precisely, about what is exceeding the frame, and attempting to give “a place in the world” to those who seemingly did not have one.