Fraternity

Nicholas Penny

  • The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. IV, Parts I-II: From the American Revolution to World War One by Hugh Honour
    Harvard, 379 pp, £34.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 939594 17 X
  • Primitive Art in Civilised Places by Sally Price
    Chicago, 147 pp, £15.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 226 68063 0
  • The Return of Cultural Treasures by Jeanette Greenfield
    Cambridge, 361 pp, £32.50, February 1990, ISBN 0 521 33319 9

In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade obtained, from an unrecorded artist, a design for its seal ‘expressive of an African in chains in a supplicating posture’, with the superscription ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ Small cameo reliefs after the seal were soon made by Josiah Wedgwood in his jasper ware, which, set into the lid of a snuff-box or dangling from the wrist, enabled the participants in this, the first great non-denominational philanthropic crusade, to exhibit their sensitivity and enlightenment. It was a smart and artistic antecedent of the lapel badges and car stickers which have been adopted by the champions of unborn babies and endangered species. This logo, as it would now be called, of the kneeling, shackled black was clear, compact, memorable, touching, and yet entirely decorous – with the added attraction, as Hugh Honour astutely points out in The Image of the Black, of hinting at conversion as well as emancipation. Indeed, Honour concludes that, for all the Society’s admirable intentions and great achievements – which he concedes with some reluctance – the very image of their endeavour to help the blacks came to ‘enshrine the idea of pathetic, docile subservience and black inferiority’. The motto, or slogan, ‘echoed both Christian beliefs in the equality of mankind before God and enlightened theories of natural law’, as Honour observes, but it cannot be considered so congenial to white philanthropists’ conviction of their superiority. Brotherhood – fraternité, – soon became an explosive word.

Art and literature in the last decades of the 18th century and the first of the 19th – the first part of the period that Honour explores – are notable for the contradictory ideas and prejudices about blacks which they reveal. To this period belong what are perhaps the most sympathetic and beautiful portraits of blacks ever made by Europeans. One of these is Reynolds’s incomplete and undated study of a young black man listening (it seems) to the winds that disturb the sky behind him, a painting long believed to be a portrait of Dr Johnson’s beloved black servant, Frank Barber. Houdon’s radiant patinated plaster head of a black woman of 1781, probably made in connection with a fountain group for an aristocrat’s garden, is another. Above all, there is the Portrait d’une Négresse exhibited at the Paris salon in 1800 by a pupil of David, Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist. The woman’s breast is exposed, but not with any sly or coy intention – her undress seems as natural to her as her white cotton turban; and the candour of her gaze is as disarming as the dignity of her bearing is impressive. She was painted, Honour notes, ‘during that brief period between the emancipation decree of 1794 and the restoration of slavery in 1802 when a black citoyenne was “free and equal”, that is to say as free and as equal as any French woman.

The painting must surely have been intended at least partly as a tribute to the French emancipation of slaves and as a celebration of the hopes expressed in numerous emancipation prints, several of which represented females. Might the artist have gone even further, perhaps, taking the words Moi égal à toi inscribed on the prints as an augury for the emancipation of all women?’

Honour’s exhaustive survey reveals how seldom colour seems then to have been an impediment to egalitarian sentiment, or the pretext for its opposite. The devil could be thought of as black, and Honour reproduces the spectacular study Ingres commissioned from a former pupil, Chasseriau, of a black Parisian model (he couldn’t obtain one in Rome), which he proposed to use for a painting of Satan. But this was a most unusual interpretation. It was also proposed that, because blushes register only on white faces, shame and embarrassment – those essential indicators of a civilised sensibility – must be deficient in blacks; but this argument was far outweighed by the numerous testimonials to the beauty of black skin, often compared with basalt or patinated bronze, which were as much valued by connoisseurs as statuary marble. Far more significant than any sense of difference which colour might suggest was the ‘evidence’ that blacks were not brothers ‘under the skin’. In Julien-Joseph Virey’s popular Histoire Naturelle du Génie Humain (first published in 1801) a profile taken from a sculpture of the bearded Zeus is contrasted with one of an Ibo African with large lips, flat nose and receding brow, and one of an orangutan. Virey considered that the shape of the black’s forehead suggested that the brain was contracting with distaste for thought, whilst the projection of nose and mouth indicated a preference for sniffing and eating.

Honour, in his account of Virey’s popularising book, points out that this theory was made possible by the work of such eminent scientists as the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper, who was, it seems, the first to suggest that the ‘prognathism’ of Africans could be ‘expressed geometrically as a measurable facial angle’. Camper’s system of skull classification was greeted with enthusiasm because ‘for thinkers of the Enlightenment, with all their faith in mathematics and geometry as the only sure means of investigating the mechanism of what they assumed to be a rationally constructed universe, measurement had crucial importance.’ This system of classification made for a racial taxonomy which placed blacks closer to animals than whites. It was endorsed, as Honour points out, by both Cuvier, the great French zoologist and anatomist, and by the ‘virtual founder of physical anthropology in Germany’, Blumenbach. It surely must have prompted a qualified response to the motto on the Abolitionists’ seal.

If this pursuit of mathematical definition was characteristic of the Enlightenment approach to the ‘family of man’, so was a rejection of absolutes in social codes, sexual mores and standards of beauty. The ‘sable Africans’, Richard Payne Knight wrote in his Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste of 1805, citing the testimony of several travellers, not only admire broad flat noses and woolly hair, but view with ‘pity and contempt the marked deformity of the Europeans; whose mouths are compressed; their noses pinched, their cheeks shrunk, their hair rendered lank and flimsy, their bodies lengthened and emaciated, and their skins unnaturally bleached by shade and seclusion, and the baneful influence of a cold humid climate’. He proceeded to speculate that ‘the fairest nymph of St James’s, who, while she treads the mazes of the dance, displays her light and slender form through transparent folds of muslin’, might ‘at Tomboctoo’ be regarded as ‘a disgusting mass of deformity’. Such a point of view could of course promote tolerance, although Knight was more interested in subverting the false security of his readers. He added, still more provocatively, that ‘the late great physiologist, John Hunter, used to maintain (and I think he proved it) that the African black was the true original man, and all the others only different varieties derived from him, and more or less debased or improved. If so, what more infallible criterion can there be for judging of the natural taste and inclination of mankind, than the unsophisticated sentiments of the most natural and original of the species?’

This remarkable passage is not cited by Honour but it becomes especially interesting in view of the fact that Knight’s readers would have had the chance to see the public exhibition in London and Paris of an African woman, Saartjie Baartman, as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, the feminine ideal of her people – an episode which Honour explores fully. The Venus had vast buttocks, an enlarged vaginal ‘flap’ and large pendulous breasts. The business, one is relieved to learn, excited disgust on the part of the African Institute, which initiated legal proceedings to have the unfortunate woman returned to her homeland, but the exhibition chiefly elicited vulgar curiosity and cruel ridicule – and eventually the higher cruelty of learned curiosity. In Paris in 1815, Cuvier had her carefully drawn by artists attached to the Botanic Gardens, with results which Honour reproduces (Léon de Wailly’s watercolour is not merely clinical, and gives her a touchingly bewildered and vulnerable expression). When Baartman died, Cuvier dissected her and was able to announce that her genitalia (which were preserved in the Academy of Medicine and later in the Musée de l’Homme), breasts and buttocks were not essentially different from those of European whites. All the same, he was sure that she belonged to a lower rank of human being.

Oddly, the ‘Hottentot Venus’ was being ridiculed as a freak in London only a little later than Wilson, a black sailor from Boston, was being admired there as a sort of Greek god. Sir Thomas Lawrence found in him the combined perfections of the finest Classical statues, and Benjamin Robert Haydon wrote as enthusiastically about him as he did about the Parthenon Marbles. Having taken separate moulds of all parts of Wilson’s body, Haydon conceived of a bolder plan and had him enclosed in a box into which he poured seven bushels of plaster of paris. He was rescued from the clammy grip of the setting (and expanding) plaster just in time – a perfect mould would only have been possible at the expense of his life. Haydon was thrilled with the impression which he had obtained and, gazing into the white shell which was the negative of the black’s ‘hinder parts’, felt that he beheld ‘the most beautiful sight on earth’. Adherence to Classical canons, persisting despite the new relativity, seems in this instance to have prompted a positive reply to the abolitionist motto – except that brothers have first names and Wilson had no more mind (for Haydon) than a cast.

No artist working at this date was more attracted by black models than Géricault, for none was so concerned with the power and pathos that could be expressed by the male nude body: he was haunted by the Laocoön and the Belvedere Torso, but not at all by the ideal beauty, composure and elegance of the Apollo Belvedere (or by any Venus). Géricault was deeply concerned with themes of domination and emancipation: he wished to paint huge canvasses of the liberation of prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition and one of the slave trade. In the one great history painting which he did complete, the Raft of the Medusa of 1819, a black plays a central part: ‘placed at the apex of a pyramid of misery’, in Honour’s stirring words, ‘silhouetted against a stormy sky with the great unfathomed Atlantic before him, signalling in vain to the ship that sails away – the leading representative of the human condition’. ‘In the whole history of Western art,’ Honour continues, ‘there is no other image that so effectively claims the right of blacks to liberty and equality.’

It is impossible to be sure how much of a comment on the family of man Géricault intended, but I suspect that Honour makes exaggerated claims here. Blacks provide impressive silhouettes and a particularly interesting challenge – which was to ensure that they were not merely silhouettes. The great attraction of the slave trade for Géricault was that it would have enabled him to combine topical modern subject-matter with heroic nudity. At a deeper level it also attracted him as an opportunity to depict something which obsessed him – the cruelty, despair and desperate struggles of man. And no doubt it attracted him because of his sympathy for the plight of blacks – but how much of a priority this was we don’t know.

Artists themselves often dwell more on the ‘purely’ pictorial opportunities presented by their subject-matter than on its ideological implications. A good example is provided by the excited letters Degas wrote from New Orleans when he was staying there with his uncle in 1872: ‘Magnolias, orange trees, bananas, blacks in hand-me-down clothes ... negresses of every shade, holding white, such very white, infants in their arms in front of white houses with fluted wooden columns and in gardens of orange trees and the ladies in muslin in front of neat little homes and the steamboats with two chimneys tall as factory-stacks and fruit sellers, their shops crammed to bursting, and the contrast between busy orderly officers and this black animal force ... the pretty women of pure blood, the quadroons, the handsome negresses’. Alas, he never found time to paint these, but both the contrasts of black and white and brilliant colour and still more, the fine distinctions (white skin, white house, white paint, white muslin, white smoke) are typical of his art. We can also tell that he would have made much of the social and moral polarities which indeed leap off the page, but about which he would have no inclination to theorise.

When artists do supply an account of their methods or motives, we should be wary. Houdon, for instance, as Honour points out, added an inscription to his plaster head of a black woman over a dozen years after he made it which made it seem that he had created it in response to the French Revolution’s decrees of emancipation. A particularly interesting artist in this connection is the sculptor Charles Cordier, whose superb bust of Said Abdalla de la tribu de Mayac, royaume du Darfour was exhibited at the Salon of 1848 (and again in bronze in 1850), and whose no less splendid Vénus Africaine confirmed his success at the Salon of 1851. Cordier’s wife’s former guardian, who was Cuvier’s successor in the Chair of Natural History in Paris, helped to secure for him state support to make busts of the racial types of Algeria for the ethnographic gallery of the Museum of Natural History. The bronze employed for the dark flesh was supplemented with drapery carved out of Algerian onyx, then being exploited by French colonial industrialists. It was in Cordier’s interest, in lecturing to anthropologists, to make his sculptures sound like systematic investigations of types rather than striking individual portraits, and we are surely not obliged to take his account of his generalising procedures too seriously. What is more revealing is the enthusiasm for moral qualities, which Cordier was not required to render, found in the catalogue of his Anthropological and Ethnographical Gallery for the History of the Races at the Palais de l’Industrie in 1860. The Nègre du Sudan has ‘the bearing of a Roman emperor’, the Nègre Nubien has ‘the pride of a Spartacus’. The depth of his sympathy and admiration is undeniable. It isn’t seriously modified by Cordier’s observation that the Greeks found more ‘perfection of form’ in their models than he could find in Algeria, not only because such perfection seems to have excited him less than other qualities, but because this observation was anyway made in one of the most dishonest of all modern literary forms, the official letter applying for a travel grant – for Greece in this instance.

It is painful to discover that Cordier’s sculptures are connected with both colonial politics and the scientific investigation of race, which now seems so disreputable, just as it is pleasing to find that Benoist’s painting may have a relationship with the enlightened legislation of the French Revolution. But what matters more is that Cordier and Benoist, and, indeed, Reynolds, shared a view of African blacks as being in some sense closer to nature than European whites: not necessarily ‘noble savages’ or ‘the most natural and original of the species’, but possessing an untutored grace and dignity, ease with their own bodies, stronger, simpler, more instinctive feelings. This did not really make for truly fraternal sympathy. It is impossible to believe that Cordier would have endowed any European, however aristocratic, with the nobility of his blacks. The spiritual receptiveness which Reynolds discovered in his black model would not have been easy for him to imagine in a white. And, while Honour is right to stress that Benoist’s portrait was made by a woman of a woman, it is also true that it is not the portrait of a sister. The artist would not have painted herself, a relative, a white friend or a white model in quite this way.

This attitude towards blacks, this prejudice in their favour, is, like all pastoral attitudes, liable to paternalism, tending to reduce blacks to the status of children (even if regarding them as children of nature or of God) or to that of animals (even if the animals are splendid and enviable). It is an attitude which has survived: even now whites admire blacks for their superior beauty, physical prowess, ‘rhythm’ and ‘soul’. The paternalistic tendencies are not inevitable. No one could claim that blacks are diminished by these busts and paintings. The subjects are depicted on their own terms, not as honorary whites, not merely as fantasy opposites of whites, but as individuals, and as representatives of people with distinct cultural traditions, in a manner presumably agreeable to black leaders, who, in recent decades have shunned many of the blander fraternal claims.

Honour’s magnificent two volumes cover much more than the images I have discussed so far – reportage and propaganda prints, genre paintings and exhibition pieces. All the major kinds of 19th-century art are reviewed, and the subjects extend from the Slave Trade to the Zulu War, taking in pictures of daily life outdoors in the Deep South and of dreams inside the shuttered harem. It concludes with a look at the avant-garde art of this century which has been influenced by African carvings and other, ‘primitive’, sculptures. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was, we recall, guilty of inadvertently enshrining ‘the idea of pathetic, docile subservience and black inferiority’, but the Dadaists and Surrealists, who held up African art as savage nonsense almost worthy of themselves, are let off relatively lightly. He does, however, curtly observe that the terms in which l’art nègre was admired left ‘the myth of savagery intact’. The appreciation of black art was not accompanied by a ‘radical revision of Western attitudes to blacks’.

Just how true this is has been demonstrated by Sally Price in Primitive Art in Civilised Places, which examines the assumptions behind the collecting and display of such art in the Western world: the idea that it is supposed to ‘speak directly’ to the child or savage in all of us; the belief that any admirer of Henry Moore or Picasso has instant access to its true meaning; the way this meaning is associated with violence, magic and wild sexuality; the notion, often contradicting available evidence, that it is the produce of anonymous craftsmen blindly obeying ancient traditions; the tacit endorsement of its blatant robbery from the people who made it. Reading her book, we realise that the crass pseudo-science of Virey’s book, with its conclusions about the receding forehead of the black profile, has an equivalent in the offensive nonsense written by artists and intellectuals about black art.

The well-meaning condescension of the Abolitionists also has its equivalent. Sally Price is particularly shrewd in her account of the notion of a global brotherhood:

One of its more successful depictions has been engineered in television commercials for Coca-Cola (a many-shaded sea of faces, all smiling, and united by their human warmth and shared appreciation of the good things in life, including Coke). The musical prize might well be awarded to the 1985 hit, ‘We are the world’, in which the singers’ brotherly smiles, phenotypic diversity, and altruistic record contracts were never allowed to stray very far from the minds of those who were humming along with the melody; indeed, this song of triumph over famine (or at least determined optimism toward this goal) captures much of the essence of the Family of Man ideology, whose Brotherhood represents an idyllic regression to childhood (‘We are the world; we are the children ...’), and much of whose attraction lies in the satisfaction engendered by philanthropic goodwill ... The enlistment of the Brotherhood ideology for commercial purposes has been carried on most recently in ‘The United Colours of Benetton’, a visually enhanced pun between the many-coloured Italian clothes being promoted and the many-coloured people featured in the ad, here again the fact that the models were children (though the bulk of Benetton clothes seem to be made for adults) is not a random choice.

Reading Price’s extracts from the self-dramatising journal kept by Michael Leiris in the Thirties in which he describes how he robbed masks and fetishes in Africa, it is hard not to dream about returning them (and Leiris, bound hand and foot) to the tribes in question. Reading her detailed account of how the art of the Suriname Maroons has been misinterpreted with systematic perversity by white academics and art-lovers, we must wonder whether it would not be desirable for Europeans and Americans to be deprived of such material even when it has been legally acquired. But Price herself does not encourage wild indignation. Jeanette Greenfield’s survey of how some ‘cultural treasure’ has been returned – the extent is quite surprising – and of how most of it has not been, and of what Unesco and ICOM have had to say about it, is useful for its scrupulously-compiled lega data. It is good, too, to have a book on the subject of punitive raids and illicit traffic which is free from sensationalism and sentimentality. But the book does little to help us understand either the genuine sense of bereavement (allied with political opportunism) in those demanding return or the idealism (intertwined with hypocrisy) in those who resist it.