Tag Archives: Primitivism

Pinboard Entry #7: Desiring the Other

Kent Monkman
Icon for a New Empire
2007

In the interior of this artist’s studio, strange things are afoot. The sculptor has laid down his chisel, for the Native American on horseback he is sculpting has come alive. Outfitted in fringed hide pants and beaded moccasins, the artist stands on his tip toes and plunges his body into the embrace of his subject, who is in living color only from the waist up. Above them a mutant cupid aims his arrow. The lovers are framed by Indian artifacts such as arrows, feathers, a fringed hide shirt and a mask as well as a small scale model of the life-size sculpture that is underway.

This is one of contemporary artist Kent Monkman’s critiques of representations of Native Americans in Western art. An artist of Cree ancestry who is widely exhibited in Canada, Monkman revisits famous images of native North American peoples and landscapes, altering their details to explicitly reveal layers of desire and violence that were previously only implied. In this piece, Monkman is not only playing off of the long tradition of studio scenes that are fraught with unconsummated (at least pictorially) ententes between artists and their models in Western art history (like this and this), he is also referencing a specific work from the American canon: James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail. A sculptor trained in Chicago but born and raised in South Dakota, Fraser began sculpting Native American subjects after the 1893 World’s Colombian exhibition, where he encountered a plethora of Native American imagery.

Monkman’s painting is a critique of white artists like Fraser, who from the second quarter of the mid-19th century onward became increasingly interested in depicting Native Americans in photography, painting and sculpture. Monkman interprets the desire that fueled that process very literally by casting the artist and subject as lovers. While sexuality may have played a role, the attraction to Native American subjects had many other dimensions as well, from the imperialist (see the naturalist expedition art of Titan Ramsay Peale) to the opportunistic (see the Indian Gallery of George Catlin) to the primitivist (see the Amerika series by Marsden Hartley).

Pinboard #4: Postcards from the Exotic

This a hand-colored photograph of a river baptism. In the center of the image, two preachers clad in dark red robes attend to a woman in a white dress and bonnet, who is submerged in the water up to her shoulders. To the right, there are several clusters of people, including a group of faithfuls who are waiting with their hands crossed in front of their bodies for their baptism to take place. To the left are two boats, which are conceivably bringing new participants to the ceremony. Crowds of African Americans, several people deep, line the banks of the river. Red lettering printed on the image indicate that this “Genuine Negro Baptism” took place near Norfolk, Virginia in 1918.

I. Stern, Genuine Negro Baptising near Norfolk, Va., 1905–10. International Center of Photography

This object was on view in the International Center for Photography’s 2011  “Take me to the Water” exhibition of vintage postcards of river baptisms in the Mid-West and the South between 1880 and 1930. As the ICP web site explains, religious fundamentalism was widespread in these decades, which brought tremendous social and economic changes to these regions. Postcards of river baptisms circulated both through those individuals who participated in the events, as well as via those who attended as spectators or merely knew of them and saw them as curious spectacles. For river baptisms were a kind of theater that satisfied not only the faithful, but also tourists in search of evidence of homegrown traditions that were at once authentic and exotic.

I wanted to present this image in relation to the horrifying lynching photographs that we encountered through Leigh Raiford’s essay. This postcard is an example of another kind of imagery that commodified black bodies. However, it performs this operation not in a register of violence, but rather one of exotic spirituality that appealed to white consumers of river baptism postcards. The title of the postcard, “Genuine Negro Baptism” captures how river baptisms featuring black subjects were addressed to such beholders as exhibits of authenticity. The postcards, like lynching photographs, provided a vantage point from which to dominate the black body through objectification and primitivization.

Not Your Typical Harem Scene

In Jacqueline Marval’s Les Odalisques, five female figures occupy a stage-like space before a partially open blue green curtain. A servant offers tea to four members of a harem, who sit and lie in varying degrees of nakedness. The three figures at left look to the figure at far right, who faces them but turns her gaze toward the viewer. Another figure lies on her side, facing us as her body extends beyond the picture plane.  Although Marval used chiaroscuro to cast shadows throughout the picture, she chose to stylize the figures rather than model them fully into naturalistic representations of female nudes. The textiles are not nearly as elaborate and sumptuous as those that appear in classic Orientalist harem paintings, like Delacroix’s Women of Algiers from 1834. In Marval’s Odalisques, bright scarves and clothing are pared down planes of color, whose complementary hot and cool shades bring a chromatic balance to the painting.

Jacqueline Marval Les Odalisques 1903

Gill Perry suggests that with Odalisques, Marval hybridized the typical harem scene, insofar as “the models appear to be Western women participating in an oriental ritual.” [1] I agree that Marval is Westernizing the women by making them white-skinned, but that is pretty typical in Orientalist painting (see Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque of 1814). I also detect some room for racial indeterminacy, especially with regard to the figure lying on her side, whose pose and hair immediately make me think of the mixed-race youth in George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri of 1845. The part of Perry’s claim that really does not convince me, however, is that these are modern women. Their erect backs and smooth white bodies, which Perry acknowledges but only associates with lifelessness and coldness, make me think that Marval is combining classical archetypes of ideal female bodies with the voluptuous femininities typically associated with Orientalist harem scenes. Here are some examples of Aphrodite statues that contain the impenetrable gazes and rigid facial structures that I detect in Marval’s Odalisques.

Even though Marval used chiaroscuro to concentrate darkness on the faces of the two figures at right,  Perry emphasizes her link to the Fauvists, with whom she  exhibited at the much historicized 1905 Salon d’Automne (albeit not in the prime real estate of the cage centrale). Marval also appears to me to be participating in Primivitism, a current that was pulsing through avant-garde circles—including but not limited to the Fauvists—by the first decades of the 20th century. Artists engaging in Primitivism sought self re-invention through art that was either non-Western, ancient or both [2]. For these artists, art and ways of art-making that opposed traditional Western criteria of beauty represented the promise of fresh forms of artistic expression—the holy grail of modernism. Picasso famously approached African masks in this manner, while Henri Matisse had revelations in Morocco, August Macke praised the Easter Island statues, and so on. Marval may have been looking to the Ottoman Empire in a traditional Orientalist way, but she also engaged modernist Primitivism by filtering her subjects through an archaic lens in order to reinvent the harem scene. After all, the primitive was defined across two axes: time and space, and Marval was negotiating both of them by painting Turkish concubines with a touch of Greek goddess.

The statuesque women in this picture both arouse and challenge the male gaze. Two of the figures are making direct eye contact with the viewer, but their heavy, parabolic lids restrict access to their pupils, and the viewer cannot discern their emotions. Likewise, while a male viewer can see their naked bodies, he does not have full access because Marval’s figures are either turned away, partially clothed or extending their arms and legs in directions that obscure their breasts and genitals. While the Ingres harem scene that Perry uses as a comparison is a chaotic cornucopia of available flesh, Marval offers a much more disciplined  figure grouping in which the women actively govern access to their bodies and psychological state. The half drawn curtain, meanwhile, threatens that the women could disappear “backstage” at any moment. In a sense, Marval tricks the male gaze by inviting it into a somewhat inhospitable environment: For while her scene would have appealed to male spectators at the turn of the century who would have recognized it as heir to the titillating Orientalist paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, Marval’s women also elude the male gaze by countering it with inscrutable expressions and managing its view of their bodies.

1. See Page 207 in, Perry, Gill, ed. Gender and Art. New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1999.
2. For a comprehensive definition of Primitivism, see Leighten, Patricia, and Mark Antliff. “Primitivism.” In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, 170–84. Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press, 1996.