Since that investigation, the Met has acquired another key work by Carpeaux, one of two marble busts depicting an enslaved woman, known for the words engraved on the base: “Why Born Enslaved!” Now the museum has a smaller but much more focused exhibit devoted to that work, including versions in terracotta, clay, and plaster, as well as other sculptures, medallions, and decorative pieces referring to the abolition movement in France and its colonies. It is accompanied by a book of penetrating essays on the role of ethnography and colonialism in shaping how people of African descent were represented in France in the 19th century.
“Why Born a Slave!” is a disturbing and compelling image of a woman, with rope cutting into her bare arms and breasts, and a defiant but haunted look on her frowning face. The original of what became a widespread luxury object – Empress Eugenie owned and displayed a prominent copy – was made in 1868, just three years after the end of slavery in the United States, but 20 years after the abolition of slavery in France. Atlantic Ocean Colonies. In contrast to an equally famous picture of abolition, Josiah Wedgwood’s c. 1787 medallion of a black man kneeling, chained, pleading with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” Carpeaux’s bust is a postlude to slavery in France, more of a congratulatory patriotic exercise than a direct appeal to the conscience. And that makes it even more problematic.
If slavery had already been abolished, what feelings should this bust evoke? The catalog essays point to the clear sensuality of the woman, to the erotic drama of her captivity and to the way in which viewers, especially men, are invited to objectify her for visual gratification. They also cast doubt on the depth and sincerity of Carpeaux’s anti-slavery views, and by extension, the sincerity of France’s belief in the true equality of the people of its widespread empire.
“Why Born a Slave!” is presented as an exercise in 19th-century ethnography, an attempt to codify and generalize racial types, which became intertwined with a larger project of assimilating colonial subjects into a universal idea of French citizenship and identity.
At the Whitney Biennale, more serious art for a more serious time
Ethnographic sculpture was perversely complicated with a wild mix of objectives and motivations, and this exhibition showcases that complexity well. On the one hand, it meant a new and more rigorous view of the subjects, an attempt to depict people of different races, not according to the conventions of academic art, but through actual attention to the world and its diversity. And one cannot watch “Why Born Enslaved!” (and other sculptures in the show, including the lavish works of Carpeaux contemporary 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 could be that Louise Kuling, a black woman from Norfolk, was living in Paris at the time.
But the new and more rigorous attempt to look at the world was also part of the pseudoscientific goal of making broad generalizations about the races and their essential natures, with a hierarchy in which the white male artist from Paris was the natural arbiter of all awards. Cordier, who draped his African figures in flowing robes of marble or bronze, may have been seeking the beauty unique to other races. But the singular beauty he found and the way he dressed his figures with classical references suggest that he mythologised his subjects within a decidedly European sense of what was attractive and universal.
The Met exhibition, which includes some 35 objects, shows two contemporary works that demonstrate the long shadow cast by the bust of Carpeaux. Kehinde Wiley’s “After La Négresse, 1872” is made of cast marble dust and resin, and shows a young black man wearing a Lakers sweater, with his head turned in the same, uncomfortably way as the Carpeaux figure it refers to. It was part of a series of 250, and the overt commercialization of its reproduction refers to the commercial forces that drove Carpeaux to make multiples of his work. It also readily appropriates the eroticism of the original and rearranges it in homoerotic terms.
Much more substantial and moving is Kara Walker’s 2017 ‘Negress’, a plaster cast made of Carpeaux’s bust, but displayed on the floor, illuminated by a single light. The plaster appears as a void bordered by the famous tormented face, suggesting both the longing and futility of any attempt to get ‘inside’ the head of the unknown figure who modeled Carpeaux.
That gesture sums up the show’s darkest question: What happens when we look intently at this face in front of us? Does our watching simply prolong the exploitation that Carpeaux both dramatizes and spoils? Will it recolonize this woman and by extension all women of color? Is there innocent participation in this exhibition?
The National Gallery examines the multiple histories of the African diaspora
Some of the 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 supposedly condemns. That makes this Carpeaux exhibition a much murkier undertaking than the 2014 show, which acknowledged the artist’s complexity and his intimate involvement with the corrupt and imperial forces that ran France at the time. But the 2014 show’s stakes weren’t quite as high, and guilty pleasure could be snatched from the darker accusations.
There is no such offer here. That leaves this bust, in its many iterations, in a curious place. It embodies a history that needs to be told and it involves us in that history. It does this because it is a very successful artistic object, clearly expressive, dramatic and captivating. We leave with the paradoxical sense that we are both condemned and privileged to live with it, as it casts an ever-longer shadow over the history of race and representation.
Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast Until March 5, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org†