Examined Life 1: The Relationship between the Races in France in 1913

 

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The White and the Black, oil on canvas, 1913.  Felix Vailloton,  1865-1925, Franco-Swiss.

Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

There appears to be no information about the circumstances in which Felix Vailloton came to paint this extraordinary scene in 1913.

 

The Metropolitan Museum says that this painting may be a response to Manet’s celebrated Olympia of 1863.  

 

Fine.

 

 

 

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Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863.  

Édouard Manet, 1882-1883, French.  Photo from the website of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  

 

 

The Met goes on to say in the jargon of museums that this is a reversal (‘a complex and layered subversion’) of the role of mistress and servant. 

 

Fine.

I am used to jargon and pleased that I can understand the lingo of so prestigious an institution. 

 

The museum then goes on to say that the relationship between the two women remains ambiguous.

 

Seriously? Ambiguous?

 

My blood pressure begins to rise.

 

 

It is 1913.  It is not the swinging 60’s.

 

A black woman with a cigarette held between her lips, ash preparing to drop, enters the room of a white woman whose servant she is. 

 

 

 

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Detail. As above

 

 

She sits down.

The expression on her face is pensive at the least; and bordering on mutinous at the most. It is not shining with love, lust, or gratitude.

 

Her right hand is tense. Her body, hunched a little forward, is not exactly relaxed.

 

That cigarette is aggressive.  It is equally aggressive to have entered the room of her mistress when the latter is stark naked and not conscious.

 

There is nothing, as with the black cat or the deep green curtain or the patterned wallpaper with its gold vertical terminating line or the little white-ish rectangle above the slave’s head or the three colors and two shades of green of the flowers, in Olympia,

 

to divert you from the stark, shocking contrast of these two women, your eyes moving back and forth between flushed cheeks and orange head-dress.

 

Even if, as some people have conjectured, the two women have a ‘relationship’, I think it is strange to suggest that their relationship is ambiguous.

 

Everyone wants to be free.

 

 

Servitude is not ambiguous.

 

 

The Met’s turn of phrase hides this reality.  The reality is of an unequal relationship between two women. There is nothing ambiguous about it.

 

 

And why carry on like this?

Because there is massive hiding about the large inequalities in our world.  All done through complex and even simple structures.

And all justified by lazy ways of thinking and little turns of phrase which allow us to feel comforted  in our lives while forms of servitude continue in our world.

 

 

My dismay with this here has also to be placed in the context of the welcome decision by some of our great art institutions to show more of the work of women and ethnic minorities. 

How when they cannot even wean themselves of their own class- and colour-based biases in interpretation?

 

This lazy nonsense is getting old.

 

 

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Detail. As above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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