Traditional museums are literally conservative places. They’re built to freeze objects in time, to shield them from change. Too often the conservative impulse extends to institutional thinking, which leaves cultural ideals and values embodied in objects embalmed in Beauty and Greatness, and left at that.
In reality, of course, everything about art is changing all the time. In the material realm, molecules never stop moving. And values, benign and poisonous, expressed in objects from the past are in the air we breathe. Inevitably, art institutions, however tradition-bound, have to change too, if they want to survive.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is trying to do just that on the evidence of a recent and ongoing series of think-piece-style exhibitions. Two of them, “The African Origin of Civilization” and “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” are on long-term view. A third, the polemically pungent “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast,” now joins them.
Like its predecessors, the new show is small, thematically driven, and installed in an offbeat space: a kind of walk-through room between the Medieval Sculpture Hall and the Robert Lehman Wing. (The Met’s exhibition design manager, Daniel Kershaw, has done a nice job on a tough assignment here.) Built around objects from the museum’s holdings and scheduled for a yearlong run, the show feels like a test site for how the museum’s permanent collection galleries might, with some imaginative curating, look.
The centerpiece is a marble sculpture, originally titled “Négresse” and retitled “Why Born Enslaved!,” by the 19th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75). A life-size, bust-length image of an anguished-looking Black woman straining against a rope that binds her arms, it was based on a plaster model made in 1868, and it is, like the show, a kind of wild-card insertion into the museum’s staid historical narrative.
The piece came to the Met in 2019, the first acquisition made by the newly arriving curator-in-charge of the Met’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, Sarah E. Lawrence. She immediately gave it a prominent display among the 18th- and 19th-century works in the Petrie European Sculpture Court, where it was the only image of a Black subject.
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And a complicated image it is, though it may not look so at first. As a dramatization of captivity, it’s graphically vivid. The woman’s face, clouded by complex emotions, feels as specific as a portrait. Her twisting neck and flying-loose hair of her suggest abrupt pain, as does the rope that stretches across her chest of her and bites into her exposed breast of her. The sculpture’s creation dates places it in a post-emancipation period in Western history. (Slavery was technically abolished in France in 1794 and again in 1848; in the British Empire in 1833; and in the United States in 1865). Yet the reality of it is still alive here, making the image feel like a potent gesture of protest, one that may be seen to have undiminished currency in the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter era.
It would be easy, and gratifying, to take Carpeaux’s image as a principled response to social injustice. But was it? The exhibition — organized by Elyse Nelson, assistant curator in the European sculpture department, and Wendy S. Walters, a poet and associate professor of writing at Columbia University — says, basically, no. And it argues its case by examining 38 other ostensibly liberatory images of Black subjects that predate and postdate this one.
Certain objects were, indeed, intended to be politically instrumental. The earliest of these in the exhibition is a cameo-size porcelain “Antislavery Medallion” manufactured around 1787 by the enterprising British potter Josiah Wedgwood. Designed to be worn like a badge, it bears the image of a kneeling, nearly nude Black man, his shackled hands raised as if pleading, his figure encircled by the words, “Am I not a man and brother?”
The medallion was originally created as a seal for the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, to which Wedgwood belonged. He made them by the thousands and they were picked up as a fashion accessory by the larger public. In addition, the image of the kneeling man had wide trans-Atlantic circulation, appearing in prints and decorating household items. What began as a promotional device for a progressive political cause turned into something else: a commodified emblem of Black abjection and white paternalism that would contribute to a growing trend in visual culture.
There are a few exceptions to this dynamic in the show. An engraved playing card produced in 1793-94 during the French Revolution presents a very different image of Black liberation. Celebrating anti-racist resistance in the French colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti), the card depicts a Black man fully clothed, carrying a gun, and trampling shackles underfoot.
And an 1867 marble sculpture, “Forever Free,” by Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), an American artist of Black and Anishinaabe descent, offers an exultant vision of Black male agency in the figure of a man standing tall and waving broken chains skyward .
But even when slavery was not the overt subject, the Black image was captive to white control. One of the most popular French sculptors of the 19th century, Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (1827-1905), made repeated images of Black figures, often based on live models, but essentially imprisoned them within exoticizing fantasy, making them serve as ethnographic types.
His 1848 bronze “Bust After Seid Enkess” is based on a real person, an once-enslaved Sudanese, though Cordier altered his name and identity — “Said Abdallah,” “Negro From Timbuktu” — to market new editions of the original work. His bronze “Bust of a Woman” from 1851 has the particularity of a portrait, but she came to be identified only as “African Venus.” And the character of the model in a later bust — itself a concoction of eye-popping luxe material (onyx-marble, gilt bronze, enamel and amethyst) — is dismissed with the sales-friendly put-down tag of “Woman From the French Colonies.”
In the exhibition catalog, the scholar James Smalls writes of “sculpting as a colonizing act,” and so it can be. It’s also, in some hands, an entrepreneurial project, which brings us back to Carpeaux’s “Why Born Enslaved!”
The bust, which Carpeaux replicated in various sizes and media — the Met also owns a terra-cotta version, which is in the show — was conceived as a luxury-item collectible from the start. In 1867 the artist began designing a commissioned civic artwork, a fountain for the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Its main components were four female figures representing continents, Africa among them. He seems to have used the same studio model — her name de ella is unrecorded — for both the full-length Africa figure and for the bust of “Why Born Enslaved !,” and went public with the bust long before the fountain was finished.
As it turned out, critical reception for the fountain was mixed, but “Négresse” was a hit from the moment it went on view at the 1869 Paris Salon. (The original marble bust that appeared there is now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen; the Met’s is a second version carved in 1873.) Its success was partly because of the timing, and to a peculiar strain of political wokeness in the air . Although the formal abolition of slavery in Europe and the United States was by then a done deal, images related to it were still in vogue. So were images that reminded Europeans of their bountiful colonial properties in Africa and the Caribbean.
To get a sense of cultural context, it’s useful to remember that, in 1869, Emperor Napoleon III, who was relentlessly pursuing French dominion in Africa, and whose patronage Carpeaux assiduously sought, purchased a copy of “Why Born Enslaved!” as a gift for his art-loving wife, the Empress Eugenie.
And what did they, and their collecting-class contemporaries, see in that work? A politically expedient emblem, one that expressed sympathy for the downtrodden, but also portrayed the downtrodden as decisively down, and dependent on white benevolence for lifting up. And some of those eyes may also have seen what seems unmistakable today, an eroticized image of female bondage, a queasy mix of sympathy and sadism.
And they may also have seen then what I see now — all of the above, but also a work of deep and complex beauty; one that’s emotionally stirring and conceptually sobering beyond anything its creator may have envisioned. That’s the object the Met both preserves and exposes in this investigative show, creating a template that could have far-reaching applications for a critical rethinking of its permanent collection displays.
Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast
Through March 5, 2023, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.