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Can We Know Her?

Black-in-Western-Art-1Years and years ago, a friend and I thought to write a movie. The film was the story of a Caribbean-born woman who leaves her island as a teen-ager; she’s employed as a kind of companion to the wife of a wealthy vacationing French family. The time: the nineteen-twenties. Once in Paris, the young woman, partly because of her talent—she’s a dancer, a performer—and partly because she’s black, becomes the toast of the town; she falls in love with a Corbusier-type artist and lives with him for a time in Switzerland, where they hang out at the Cabaret Voltaire, a chic, “avant-garde” boîte that was popular at the time. In fact, the film was named for that historic place. I never got any further with the story, and would have forgotten certain details altogether, had I not come across Jan Sluyters’s devastating 1922 painting “Portrait of Tonia Stieltjes” in “The Image of the Black in Western Art, the Twentieth Century: The Impact of Africa,” edited by the art historian David Bindman and the professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The archivist Karen C. C. Dalton is an associate editor on the project.) In Sluyters’s sublime work, we see a woman of color dressed in black—black hat with a wide brim, black dress. With her red lips and heavily powdered face, she wears a mask over her mask: we cannot know her, but we, and Sluyters, want to know her—for the pleasure of her ultimately unfathomable nature.

This is the first part of the fifth volume in a series that has profound and moral depth—the cumulative effect of all the books in the series is to see the ways in which ethics, aesthetics, and looking are entwined, and the ways in which they are made even more complicated by culture and by class. In their thorough introduction, Bindman and Gates tell us about the history of the project. During the height of the civil-rights movement, the French-born, estimable Dominique de Menil and John de Menil, whose wide-ranging collection in Houston contained a vast amount of material relating to or representing blacks in Western art, thought to finance a series of books with beautifully produced plates and essays that would explore that history. The de Menils hoped that the books would help foster a greater understanding of black life (they had been encouraged by a priest friend to think of collecting as a form of meditation and charity). Sometime after Dominique de Menil’s death, in 1997, the books were discontinued. (John de Menil died in 1973.) Gates picked the project up, hence the present volume.

Gates’s book is about the image of the black during the age of mechanical reproduction and how it changed, was modernized, denigrated, and, often, fetishized. It begins with artist and historian Deborah Willis’s essay about how photography became a force in the nineteenth century not only for documenting black life but also for editing it. The camera sees what the photographer wants to see: we then learn, in Tanya Sheehan and Gates’s essay, “Marketing Racism: Popular Imagery in the United States and Europe,” how advertising, which was tied to photography, developed its own long-standing narrative about blackness in the nineteenth century as well. That narrative was negative and ignorant, sometimes centering on, say, how blackness could be cured or washed away with various soaps manufactured in industrial-era England. The myth of blackness as soot, as stain, as something to be disappeared by virtue of a European product was especially appealing to colonialists.

Looking through the plates that Willis, Sheehan, and Gates chose for their essays, I was reminded of the extraordinary “The Black Book.” Edited by Toni Morrison, an editor at Random House at the time, the volume is a kind of collage, or scrapbook, about black American life from the time the ships rolled in through the civil-rights movement. In that pivotal work, Morrison included startling ads, poems by the incredible, largely unknown poet Henry Dumas, flyers for slave auctions, patents by black inventors, photographs of entertainers, snatches of songs, and so on. In a 2009 interview about the work, Morrison said that, at the time, there was a perception that books directed at African-Americans didn’t sell. “And I thought, Well, maybe we haven’t published anything that the larger African-American community wanted…. What about something that’s really popular and is about African-American life? And that’s when I began to put it together. … All I had were these pictures and newspaper clippings and sheet music and postcards.” Gates’s current project is not so much an addendum to that work as it is a companion volume to it, a reaching out to encompass blackness as it was perceived outside of the United States.

Esther Schreuder’s essay on portraitists like Sluyters is not only historically fascinating—it’s also vital because of the questions it raises, such as, Why did I find the images of blacks created by modern-day whites to be much more interesting than those produced by the black artists in the book? That has to do, in part, with personal preference: I am drawn to the complications inherent in looking at a different race and culture. In the case of Sluyters, he found ways to break away from the Dutch style while also adding something to it. Slutyers’s portrait of Tonia is a portrait of the Negro, but Tonia is an amalgamation of black and white styles—sartorially, attitudinally—that does not fall into agitprop. Slutyers doesn’t dissect Tonia’s mixed-race heritage or elevate her to a heightened status. Rather, the tension in the picture is based on what Slutyers was intelligent enough to know that she could not fully represent: how Europe made and could not make Tonia.

Tonia’s grave face is powdered white, as was the fashion of the time, but then there is her “real” skin and her style, which is something “other.” My imagination reacts to those levels of density and nonverbal expression more readily than to portraits of black people by artists ranging from Goldie White to Brent Malone. I find their work predictable: it elevates blackness to a kind of folkloric purity and strength that doesn’t allow for labyrinthine humanness, or for the fact that most blacks come from some place they don’t know but, like Tonia, make themselves up out of the whole cloth of Europe, or Africa, or whatever temporary home will have them. (The abstractions of the great Cuban-born painter Wifredo Lam are a beautiful record of that tension; he borrowed from those Europeans—Picasso, et al.—who were interested in “primitivism,” the better to reclaim his own Africa heritage. Another significant piece in the catalogue is the Brazilian artist’s Hélio Oiticica’s photographic portrait “Jeronimo, wearing Cape 5. 1965,” which shows queerness and dreams in a real setting.) It’s Tonia’s isolation in public, the theatricalization of her different self through paint and dress, that encompasses so much of what makes the black in Western art incalculably lonely, unknowable, troubling, and, sometimes, beautiful, just like other people.

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The Haunting (1963)

I had not seen the film before now, too afraid that Claire Bloom’s gorgeous Mary Quant costuming would not have a good and proper home. I also have an aversion to Robert Wise films–he’s the jughead who cut “Magnificent Ambersons,” and added the bad ending while Orson was away shooting colored people in Brazil for “It’s All True.” In any case, Julie Harris’ kindness as an artist and Claire Bloom’s close friendship with the late Barbara Epstein made me simmer down and watch the film over a few days. It’s scary only if you have been close to someone who gradually begins to feel the terror of exclusion you’ve always felt, and you feel sad and anxious for them–for the waste land you will share together, or not. Claire was adorable as the preying mantis lesbian, but the relationship between Julie and Claire felt more sibling like than anything to me. But that might be where I am right now. Siblings sharing varying degrees of confusion and fear about the “family,” and exclusion in the family-as-group, shaped the film for me, but I may be re-writing. And I adored Claire’s large black haired head while dressed in varying degrees of internal and external blackness.
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Archibald Motley Junior

Self_Portrait_of_Archibald_MotleyThe Art Institute of Chicago has a number of treasures and, near those treasures, hitherto unknown treasures, such as the work of Archibald Motley Jr. I was standing near Sargent’s 1897 portrait of Elizabeth Swinton–a relative of Tilda’s–when I felt my energy being re-directed to another painting, smaller, less “monumental” in presentation, but gravitational in its colors, form, psychology. Painted in 1920, Motley’s self-portrait is not only a portrait of the artist, but of the dandy-fied Negro, a city creature standing on the crossroads where Africa and Europe meet in that new land–America. I had never heard of his work before. I had never seen hands the way he painted his hands in his self-portrait: like vertical bats in action, a flurry of intention and then execution. Born in New Orleans, Motley was a Harlem Renaissance era painter who never lived in Harlem, and who never fully identified with being black or white–he would not choose. (His nephew, Willard Motley, was raised as his brother. Willard Motley was a “raceless” novelist, the author of “Clash By Night,” and the scary “Let No Man Write My Epitaph.” I have always wanted to write about his work.) Motley’s portraits were definitely about “the race,” but also his European-ness, those masters he felt close to (Rembrandt, etc). I am less inclined to be interested in his scenes of “urban,” life, they feel forced, noisy in a way that is not him so much as a him he thought he should be (racial uplift or ideology as corrupting to art). All of this I learned and wanted to learn and think about after I saw his beautiful self-portrait, thought about the shape of his mouth, the handlebar mustache, and those hands so anxious to get their work done.

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Wystan

Auden29For years I did not “understand” W.H. Auden; his work did not sound like “poetry” to me, which is to say I could not recognize his “feeling,” the wellspring of his language. But I kept buying his books and putting them on the shelf; something other than “education” kept me going back. In any case, I found his biography easier to absorb than his work; there one found what one could easily recognize as poetry: the broken heart, the faithless loves, Wystan’s dogged determination to be accepted by those who could not care as he cared. Last summer, I took Auden’s “Nones,” with me somewhere, and my heart opened up to this: Auden wrote essays in the form of poems, and poems in the form of essays; he was a pre-Godard figure in his belief that the poetic essai (French for: attempt) could contain many things all at once: narrative, poetry, analysis, dreams, autobiography. “Nones,” is a thin book, filled with information and observation after brilliant observation concerning time–time eroding not only our bodies, but eating itself. Limestone drips time. Poetry makes a line of time. Our tits sagging tells us it’s time to face who we are, too. Today, after an afternoon of reporting, a thin young white American man-boy gave me a ride in his country cab; he eyed the women who were walking nearby, saying he didn’t like American women, he wanted a European woman. “Like, from Russia. Or Asia.” Then he said, “This is a weird conversation to have with a client.” The conversation wasn’t strange; he was using the metaphor of his displeasure with the sameness that surrounded him as a way of telling me how my different presence affected him. I’ve been that object before and heard that anger before and waited longer than a cab ride for any number of drivers to admit that to me. This afternoon’s driver said a number of unpleasant things, he was very unhappy in his (silent) desire for men and so blamed it all on his dissatisfaction with women. Despite my discomfort, there was empathy: I imagined being trapped in his body, trapped in his car, trapped in this state. Then I remembered Auden and how he took his personal unhappiness about public and private matters–faithless lives in a godless state–and made it something else, including making work that made us feel something else.

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Fats

fatsFats Waller. Even when he couldn’t get his feet off the ground, he walked on clouds. He was irrepressible in his joy when it came to music, voices, the sweet and sour smells of backstage life; his clergyman father’s disapproval of his son’s chosen style of music only brought more joy to Waller’s enterprise. This didn’t mean he denied the truth–listen to “Black and Blue”–but Waller didn’t wallow. Why do that when there were other options, such as good looking women and good music and rent parties and stories to be told and his big face? One loves him as one does a relative–the uncle who slips you a five against your mother’s wishes. You bury your child face in his big suit that smells, equally, of sweat and violet candy and hair tonic, and that is the smell you look for forever. Waller’s songspiels–his patter–is as significant as Brecht and Weill’s, and just as joyful in its made-up-ness. When Fats died, his family carried out his wishes, which was to be cremated, and have his once solid body spread over Harlem, which changes and does not change, like home.

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Sarah

Sarah Lucas. Historic. Couldn’t be happier about this. See Sarah’s show at Gladstone. As always whenever Sarah puts something on, I burst out laughing because why not, our bodies, not to say minds, are very funny, particularly if you don’t have the thing you’re looking at but you think about it more than your own junk, thank you for that, Sarah, and the egg breasts and your spread legs, the chicken pussy and the oversized cocks, a kind of Roald Dahl “Chocolate Factory,” world filled with real things; thank you, Sarah; we met in London many years ago when she used to work with Tracey Emin, and I loved Sarah from the time I saw her round, open face and her tendency to laugh at what was laughable, and also her exquisite manners, the cigarettes and her inability not to laugh, and then she and Tracey made a piece called “Gone to Morocco with Hilton,” in homage to our lovely meeting, I can’t remember how old we were then, we just ran around London like mad things, no one was out of breath because we had lungs to spare despite the cigarettes, and what I remember if I close my eyes is Sarahs’ brown hair short and lank in the English air, she really does love England, and I don’t think America could have produced her because her humor is very English, Americans think irony is cruel, particularly if it’s verbal, and while Sarah is, of course, a superb visual artist, her work rests, profoundly, at the intersection of the visual and the verbal–a world of associations, jokes and puns and the like and then breasts and cocks and space as a kind of joke that we want to fill or dominate with the oddness of our very weird same and individual selves.
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