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Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay

May 26, 2019 18 comments

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. 

I have attended a fascinating exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Black models: from Géricault to Matisse. It takes the visitors through a part of the history of black French people from the French Revolution to the 1930s.

The exhibition focuses on black models in painting and takes detours through literature and other arts. I rented the audio guide because I knew that some of the paintings were commented by Lilian Thuram and Ab El Malik. Thuram is a former football (soccer) player who won the World Cup in 1998. He’s bright, articulated and fights against racism. Abd al Malik is a rap singer, one with excellent lyrics.

The exhibition has three main sections: one from the Revolution until the abolition of slavery, one about blacks and art in the 19th century, one about the beginning of the 20th century.

The slavery times.

In 1794, the young French Republic abolished slavery in the colonies. Actually, it was only applicable in Saint Domingue, French Guyana and Guadalupe. It remained enforced in La Martinique (then occupied by the British) and at the Mascareignes (now La Réunion & Mauritius). It was never legal in the Nouvelle France. (Québec, Acadia and Louisiana). First black députés were at the parliament.

Napoléon 1st re-established slavery and the slave trade in 1802 and abolished the slave trade in 1815. Nothing changed during the Restauration (Monarchy) and in 1848, the Second Republic abolished slavery in France for good this time. 250 000 slaves were emancipated. That’s for history.

Some artists like Géricault or Verdier used their art to fight against slavery. See Le châtiment des quatre piquets dans les colonies.

This is such a normal scene for the colonies that a white woman is there with her child. The banality of it makes it even harder to contemplate. Verdier wasn’t allowed to show his painting at an official exhibition.

Some like Biard put their painting at the service of government propaganda. See here, Biard’s Abolition de l’esclavage.

The black characters on the painting acts like they are thankful. This painting shows the official vision of the abolition of slavery. It’s a gift when it’s not. It’s abolishing something that is inhuman and should not exist.

When preparing the exhibition, researches were made to find out the identity of the black models featured on the paintings. Sometimes, the titles of the paintings were changed because their original title is offensive now. The captions keep the history of the titles until the one chosen for the exhibition. If possible, it now relates to the models’ names. See this this painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist in 1800. It was first intitled Portrait d’une négresse, then Portrait d’une femme noire and now it is Portrait de Madeleine.

The changes in the title feels right as long as we keep their historical thread. We see how society changed and where we come from. Just changing the name would erase the truth. When it was painted, her identity to the white world was not Madeleine. Her name didn’t matter. She was “just a nigger.” As Romain Gary pointed it out, racism is when people don’t matter. It is symbolic and important to give this woman her rightful name, her identity and her position as an equal human being in our eyes.

The 19th century after 1848.

Literature has its place in the exhibition as Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover was black and Manet painted her.

She was his muse and a recurring presence in The Flowers of Evil. She’s the black sun in his poetry.

I noted down several literary works featuring black characters: La négresse et le Pacha by Théophile Gautier, Le capitaine Pamphile by Alexandre Dumas, Toussaint Louverture, poème dramatique by Lamartine, Bug Jargel by Victor Hugo, Ourika by Claire de Duras. In 1921, René Maran was the first black writer to win the Prix Goncourt with his book Batouala. Véritable roman nègre. I’m tempted to read the Dumas because I like him as a writer and he was proud of his black heritage, despite the jibes and he wrote is Capitaine Pamphile as a statement.

And there was a display table about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that was successful in France when it was published.

The 19th century is also the century of French colonization of parts of Africa. Cordier made gorgeous bronzes to celebrate the beauty of African people

Including one entitles Aimez-vous les uns les autres. (Love one another)

And at the same time, there was a horrible film taken at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris in 1897. It was a human zoo representing an African village with actual Africans displayed in this fake village.

The early 20th century.

WWI brought more black people in France. The Senegalese tirailleurs, soldiers from African colonies were enrolled in the French army. The Harlem Hellighters, an African-American infantry regiment of the US Army were detached to the French army and wore French helmets during WWI.

It bothered me that the Senegalese tirailleurs and the Harlem Hellfighters were put together on the same wall. It’s not the same. The Senegalese tirailleurs are colonial troops who were sent to fight for a country that wasn’t theirs. They didn’t ask to be colonized and live under French rule. They got into this war because of the colonization.

The Harlem Hellfighters fought in France because the USA entered WWI. They were serving their country. To put them on the same wall as the Senegalese tirailleurs is like saying that, like them, they were fighting for a cause that wasn’t theirs. It denies the fact that these African-American troops had rightful American citizenship.

The arrival of 200 000 African-American soldiers in 1917-1918 for WWI brought jazz to France and it was the beginning of an African-American community in Paris. The exhibition branched out to show black artists in circus, in theatre or on shows like Josephine Baker. It reminded me of another exhibition The Color Line, about segregation and African-American artists.

It also focused on the concept of négritude by Aimé Césaire, it met the Surrealists’ political causes and was concomitant to the Harlem Renaissance movement. I loved to hear about Matisse and how his visit to Harlem influenced his painting.

The exhibition ends with a new reading of Olympia by Edouard Manet, first by Matisse:

and then by Larry Rivers in I Like Olympia In Black Face.

If you’re traveling to Paris soon, the exhibition lasts until July 21st and it’s worth the visit.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t live the Musée d’Orsay with two new books bought at the bookstore of the exhibition. Slavery Told to my Daughter by Christian Taubira and Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, Jimmy being James Baldwin.

 

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La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille – A rom com from the 17th century

May 26, 2019 5 comments

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille (1634)

Yes, you have read the title of this post correctly. I put Corneille and “rom com” in the same sentence. I know the guy is mostly known for verses like O rage! O despair! O inimical old age! Have I then lived so long only for this disgrace? (*) Corneille, the classic playwright is not exactly famous for being fun. But La Place Royale, written in 1634, three years before Le Cid is definitely a rom com.

Let me you tell why and describe this play in modern words. Once you dust off the alexandrines, forget about the old-fashioned language, the weird names, you start picturing a rom com. First of all, the plot is paper-thin and is all about “he/she wants me, he/she wants me not.”

Alidor is dating Angélique. Cléandre is Alidor’s BFF and has a secret crush on Angélique. He hides it by hanging out with Phylis, Angélique’s BFF. Doraste, Phylis’s brother is pining for Angélique, who knows it and has no patience for it.

Alidor and Angélique have been dating for a year and need to take their relationship to the next stage, which means marriage in the 17th century. But Alidor is a commitment phoebe and is totally freaking out. He needs a plan to get out of this relationship without breaking up because he can’t find a reason to break up except the fact that he doesn’t want to be tied up forever to one woman.

His brilliant idea is to find his replacement in Angélique’s heart. No harm, no foul, she’ll move on and be happy with someone else and Alidor will be free. And who can you ask to take that bullet for you? Your BFF, of course. Cléandre is happy to oblige as he gets the girl in the end.

Alidor puts his stupid scheme into motion and of course, nothing goes according to plan. He makes Angélique believe that he cheated on her and he pisses her off enough for her to reject him. Cléandre is on board, ready to woo and win her.

As Angélique feels vulnerable after Alidor’s betrayal, Phylis steps in and gives Doraste an opening. The poor guy becomes Angélique’s rebound. He’s on the verge of marrying her when Alidor realizes that he can’t lose her and convinces her to leave Doraste the night before their wedding and elope.

The elopement goes wrong, Cléandre ends up kidnapping Phylis and they discover they are very much in love with each other. They have their HEA. Doraste decides he deserves better that being a rebound and is happy to leave Angélique to Alidor. That’s when you remember you are in a French 17th century comedy  and not in a Hollywood sugary movie because Alidor and Angélique do not have their HEA. He doesn’t put his head out of his ass soon enough to get the girl, she doesn’t forgive him, she swears off men forever and makes it final by joining a convent.

See? Almost a teen movie. And the characters seem to come out of an American rom com.

We have the central power couple, Alidor and Angélique.

Alidor is more than annoying, he’s a jerk. He makes speeches and babbles about fading beauty and fickle love. He raves about his precious freedom and how he doesn’t want to give it up. But he’s also a giant coward who doesn’t have the guts to be honest with Angélique and would rather weave a tangled web of deception than make a clean break.

Angélique is more mature than her boyfriend. She knows she’s in it for the long haul, she loves him and doesn’t play games. She’s genuine, devastated when their relationship ends but she’s not desperate. More importantly, she’s not a doormat.

Cléandre is the classic BFF. He’s second best to Alidor who seems to be the biggest fish in their dating pond. He won’t do anything about Angélique because she’s dating his friend but he’s happy to take on Alidor’s offer to take his leftovers if he gets Angélique.

Phylis is probably the most interesting character of the play. She’s outspoken and wild. She’s a shameless flirt, treating every beau the same way, not getting attached to any of them. We’re in the 17th century and she argues that she’d better not fall in love with anyone because in the end, her father will dispose of her and marry her off to the man he chooses and not to the man she loves. She’s protecting herself against heartbreak.

Doraste is the good guy, the one who will nurse a sore heart in the end.

So, we have the typical characters of a rom com but we also have some of the key scenes. The boy talk between Angélique and Phylis. The wallowing-in-my-misery scene in Angélique’s bedroom. The only reason why she wasn’t binging on Ben & Jerry is because it wasn’t invented yet. The plotting scenes between the Alidor and Cléandre. The opening scene where Alidor gets cold feet and decides to get out of his relationship.

Even the French vocabulary of the time matched today’s American ways. I hate the expressions she/he is mine, I belong to him/her. We don’t say that in French anymore but in Corneille’s time, we did. And that’s the most infuriating part of this play. It callously shows that women are properties, goods to be exchanged between males. Nobody should belong to anybody but themselves.

Phylis chooses to giver herself freely and her attitude is the most modern of the play. And more importantly, Corneille doesn’t judge her for it. He gives her speaking time in his play to explain why her frivolous way are a defense mechanism. It’s her attempts at regaining some power over her body and her life before she has to give in to her father’s decision. Women don’t decide for themselves. The only decision they can make is to enter a convent.

I found that Corneille was more progressive than I thought. Molière was the progressive one for me, not Corneille. The women in La Place Royale are not deceitful creatures who play games. They are the honest and mature characters. The men are the ones who, in a way, have all the flaws usually attached to female characters: they don’t play fair, they toy with feelings, they lack courage. Corneille shows compassion and empathy for the women of his time.

I have seen La Place Royale at the Théâtre des Célestins. It was directed by the brilliant Claudia Stavisky. She casted young comedians who reminded us how young the characters of the play are. Their acting was lively and right from the boy talk scene between Angélique and Phylis, I knew I would love this play the way Claudia Stavisky staged it. They brought the alexandrines to life, they moved around like 21st century people and it worked. They played in such a way that it felt like a contemporary play without betraying the original. The modernity of Corneille’s play pops out and I never knew Corneille could be so funny. I went into the theatre, tired by a gruesome week at work and hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep on Corneille’s alexandrines. Stavisky’s direction of the play kept me awake, amused and I had a grand time.

For French readers, if this comes to your city, rush for it and buy tickets. Highly recommended.

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(*) Le Cid by Pierre Corneille (1637) translation by Roscoe Mongan.

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