The Color of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality, and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture Review – Nonstop Shocks | Sculpture

Jhe most famous sculpture in American art is currently on display at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Hiram Powers The Greek slave (1844), a life-size female nude sculpted in pristine white marble, traveled a dumbfounded continent for more than four years, from 1847 to 1851.

Nubile, shaved, delicately chained, this vision of nudity came disguised as all sorts of propaganda. The pose was high art (based on the Venus of Milo). The Greek girl was a true Christian (a crucifix hangs below one wrist). She was obviously trying to protect her modesty with the other hand (maybe). Powers described his creation as the embodiment of “high moral and intellectual beauty” and even swapped chains for handcuffs in a later version, alluding to the American anti-slavery movement. But his nude was as notorious as it was prodigiously popular, repeated at all scales, from museum to fireplace edition.

The original sculpture arrived in Britain, bought by aristocrats for Raby Castle near Durham. She’s the first figure you see in this fascinating display of Victorian sculptures of women. Immediately your mind is buzzing with questions. How did Powers get away with this enslaved nudity in the 19th century? Didn’t he put the viewer in exactly the same position as the buyer eyeing the slaves in the market? Isn’t that blatant Orientalism in other ways? And if the chained variation was meant to be pro-abolition, why the hell didn’t Powers completely redesign his figure and sculpt it out of black marble?

The show keeps clashing at a breakneck pace. This is Canova’s neoclassical Hope Venus effectively offering a nipple to the viewer, and that of John Gibson Venus tinted, with pink nipples and bright blue eyes. She wears her defrocked dress like a coat under one arm. There were cries of indecency when it was presented for the first time in 1856, in full polychromy, but the controversy seemed to have faded with the International Exhibition six years later.

by Charles Cordier The African woman, shown at the 1867 exhibition, features the eponymous female figure in black onyx, dressed in thick robes of undulating white marble. The black woman is only allowed to be black on the condition, it seems, that she carries a heavy burden of whiteness. The marble, by the way, came from the French colony in Algeria. Depictions of women of color oscillate little by little between the outrageous whiteness of so many Victorian statues and a very nuanced naturalism.

“A very nuanced naturalism”: The African Woman, 1857 by Charles Cordier. Rotherham Museums, Arts & Heritage

There is an extraordinarily strange bust here, of a bound African woman struggling against her ropes. It is not quite black yet, but whiter. A plaster version in gilded bronze by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux Why born a slave! (1868), she has at least – and finally – the appearance of a black African woman. Yet, although the sculpture is ostensibly abolitionist, at least according to Carpaux’s title, the strings cut through the bare chest so that her body is outrageously sexualized.

That the Victorians took a vigorous interest in sex is hardly news, to all the old chestnuts on the piano flourishes. What is so telling about this show, with its array of extravagant figures, is how bizarre their attitude towards the body shapes of the sculpture was. You could buy a pocket Greek slave porcelain, made by Minton, for the privacy of your own living room. You can go to the Royal Academy and marvel at the twists of exhausted Nubian water carriers or buy bronze statuettes of handcuffed slaves in the galleries of Mayfair.

The strange fashion for chryselephantine carving – where the flesh is ivory and the rest precious metal – seems to have been driven by a twisted Orientalism that wanted Oriental women to be whiter. Cleopatra (Egyptian) reclines in all her ivory glory, one breast inevitably bare, on a throne of blackened gold. by George Frampton lamia (Libyan) is a deadly white seductress in a turn-of-the-century blackened bronze helmet.

But a more disturbing use of materials is the life-size statue of John Bell known as the The Octoron. White men imposing themselves on enslaved black women led to generations of mixed-race slaves and former slaves. Octoroons, as they were called, were one-eighth black by descent. Bell’s nude, with her pale face and flowing tresses, can’t free herself from her chains. It is carved in white marble, of course, but the stone has a vein of gray, as if deliberately chosen to appear impure.

Sir George Frampton's Lamia.
Lamia by Sir George Frampton, 1899-1900. © Royal Academy of Arts, London

This work is on loan from Blackburn; others come from Bradford, Bournemouth and Liverpool. There is a strong correlation here between municipal trade, overseas trade and wealth, and the collection of sculpted nudes that border on exploitation and pornography.

For context, curators have exhibited 19th-century editions of Punch magazine, in one of which Africa is portrayed as a black version of Hiram Powers’ slave wearing only a necklace and earrings. The devastating caption reads: ‘How to Seduce African Venus’.

It is a complex and highly intelligent spectacle that stretches in many directions at once – from trade and slavery to Victorian mores and culture, from race and color to polychrome sculpture . It is also the lust of the time, the passion to collect nudes of teenage girls with naughty breasts sculpted in smooth marble. Such bodies are given to even the older characters here, their worried, weary faces; they are even given to the dying.

Inside the exceptionally creepy statue of Harry Bates Black Feathered Death threatening on Life, the latter is represented by an ivory nude with the body of a 14-year-old girl who seems on the verge of succumbing.

African Venus, 1852 by Charles Cordier.
African Venus, 1852 by Charles Cordier. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 202

The height of astonishment, here, is a bust in black bronze of an African woman with a short and very expressive Afro face. Hanging from her lobes are earrings that look like golden bullets. She looks, at first glance, like a biting contemporary parody of imperialist sculpture – a fierce face and a canister of ammunition. But it’s not a pastiche. Produced by Charles Cordier in 1852, the work is titled African Venus. We return again to exploitation. It belongs to His Majesty the King.

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