The Black Model at the Crux of Western Culture: Sweeping Exhibition at Museé d’Orsay

The Black Model at the Crux of Western Culture: Sweeping Exhibition at Museé d’Orsay
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Manet, "Olympia" as installed at the Musée d'Orsay

The “Black Models” show at the Orsay Museum in Paris reveals the Western neglect of the female archetypal, which accounts for racial and gender subjugation and ultimately disregards for the planet itself. Through this view of the show, we poignantly discover a cultural progression, but also a need for further understanding today.

From NYC To Paris

This is no doubt the intellectual theme of the show for me. But there was a particular impact of seeing the show in Paris – the first viewing being at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery in New York City.

Undoubtedly, the Musée d’Orsay’s collection more fully reflected curator Denise Murrell’s stunning unveiling of Manet’s role as an artist-prophet, as it is fractured the rigid conventions of his time, with specific look to representation of the black woman. “Olympia,” the infamous Manet painting, had been left of the first rendition of the exhibit.

Academic Art of the French Establishment

Not only that, but dozens of compelling objects were added in Paris – particularly memorable was a suite of stunning busts. These immaculate statues, created by artists deliberately working in the French Salon, state-sanctioned style, utilize a dark bronze patina to render black men and women, both in stereotyping costumes and in the exacting likenesses of lost models.

Suite of statues, as installed at the "Black Models" exhibit, Musée d'Orsay

The Musee d’Orsay’s sprawling collection of 19th century art academy the tradition of exoticized, colonial representations of black people. These images reveal the way in the world of the world of erosconnected to the body, nature, inclusivity, relatedness, love – could subjugate and dehumanize people based on skin color.

European Psyche

Ultimately, a meditation on this show calls for a profound undressing of Western culture’s lost values ​​of eros , synonymous with the female archetypal. Only then do we see what we do in the world of collective healing, classifying oppression and repressive social constructs, but also the recovery of our relationship to nature, earth, body and basic appreciation of all humanity.

What I call a “lack of eros ” in Western culture was described by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze as capitalism’s schizo-mania. The men within such a schizoid culture projected repressed values ​​of body, sexuality and nature on the black woman. Manet and Matisse, a native of the United States, has played a crucial role in breaking up social stubbornness, which reflects this unconscious situation.

Manet as Artist-Prophet

Denise Murrell’s “Black Models” exhibit and companion book centered around Manet, who was featured prominently in the central gallery room. The painting is as vital as the day Manet painted it, as the intensity of his thought and the complexity of his vision is still uncovered today.

The day I went to the exhibition in the Orsay Museum, I saw extraordinary artifacts which demonstrated a progression from cruel stereotypes to increasing appreciation of the individual woman. Murrell’s text shows how central Baudelaire’s concept of what the art of modernity would be – to represent daily life, which was becoming multicultural – was to this narrative. Baudelaire – who was in love with a mixed-race woman – intellectually influenced both Manet and Matisse who furthered the artistic representation of the black woman in European culture.

And yet, present in my mind was a reading of the larger dream of our Western culture. Observing the figures of Western art and the social context, I saw the story of our collective psyche: artists helped the progress towards a multicultural, multiethnic society.

What the “Black Models” Mean Today

Still today, the Western man lives by the myth of the “bottom line,” of “quarterly growth,” of conquering and building; the lost feminine calls for mutual respect, conservation of the environment, and the appreciation of life – not dollars, not winning.

This is the message of Manet and the Black Models today.