British Art Studies: Haptic Blackness

The Double Life of an 18th-century Bust

by

Cyra Levenson, & Chi-ming Yang

with photo-essay by Ken Gonzales-Day

British Art Studies, Issue 1, Nov. 2016.

“One Object” is a British Art Studies series that uses an object from a collection as a starting point for collaborative research. Cyra Levenson and Chi-ming Yang have co-authored this essay which is followed by a photo-essay by artist Ken Gonzales-Day and an interview between him and the authors.

Francis Harwood’s Bust of a Man (1758) is a conversation starter—across time, across continents, across collections, across disciplines. Some of those conversations will be explored in this essay. There are two known copies of the bust in museum collections. A signed and dated version, likely to be the original, is held atop a sundrenched hill at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (fig. 1, right). A second, unsigned and undated, is at Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) in New Haven, Connecticut, amidst its Neo-Gothic campus (fig. 1, left). For years both busts sat quietly in their respective museum settings: the Getty’s Grand Tour gallery of mostly white marble European sculpture (fig. 2), and the YCBA’s display of eighteenth-century British painting and sculpture, featuring portraits of affluent white patrons. In each context the bust stands out, primarily due to its sensuous blackness, but also because of the paucity of information regarding its origins.

To visit full site: British Arts Studies 

 

Ken Gonzales-Day interview

DOI

Could you describe how you first encountered the Harwood bust? What drew you to it?

I was a Visiting Scholar (and artist-in-residence) at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. I used to walk past the Harwood sculpture quite often and I remember being rather struck one day by its location, near a passageway. It was in a room with life-size white marble sculptures of Venus (1773), Minerva (1775), and Juno (1776), by Joseph Nollekens and Joseph Wilton’s white marble Bust of a Man (1758), and Bust of Pseudo-Seneca (1755–65). There was also Faun Holding a Goat by an unknown Frenchman, a herm, another portrait bust, and perhaps unintentionally, Francis Harwood’s Bust of a Man seemed to be gazing directly towards a rather lithe marble figure of Apollo Crowning Himself (1781–82) by Antonio Canova.

In a small mountain’s worth of white marble, this was the only depiction of race that I could see. A black male bust carved in black stone, with broad shoulders, a bare chest and the muscular definition of a superhero. It was, and is, a striking figure, but what surprised me most was the speed at which viewers passed by and scarcely gave it a glance. It occurred to me that this was a rather remarkable room and I went there often. His name was not known. There was also no explanation of how he came to be there, in Los Angeles, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, nor of how he might relate to the other sculpted figures in the room. This is not a criticism of the museum display but an observation. To most viewers, he was a man without a past, out of context, perched high upon a pedestal well above eye level. He was literally and figuratively isolated from the pulsing flow of visitors who walked in a steady stream past him on their way to the nearby elevated garden with a spectacular view of the city—steep competition for sure, particularly at such a well-known tourist destination.

DOI

How did you decide you wanted to photograph it?

It was after this experience that I altered my then current project at the Getty, and decided to photograph every portrait bust in the J. Paul Getty Museum as a way of thinking about sculptural depictions of race and whiteness. It is true that I could perhaps have simply purchased a museum catalogue, or searched the collection database online, but for my project I wanted to see these objects, to witness their presence, their scale, their surfaces, and to create a body of work from that experience. The project was so massive that the Getty extended my time there to allow me to complete the project, and I should say that none of it would have been possible without the support of the Getty Research Institute, the museum and security staff.

DOI

This is a method and genre question: why make photographic images of existing art works, and how does what you do differ from documentary photography? How would you describe your aesthetic vocabulary?

There is a larger question here about whether or not these photographs can or should be seen as part of a documentary project. I can say that unlike a museum photographer working to document an object for an exhibition catalogue, I am not bound by the rules, which is to say that a conventional documentary image may simply wish to present the sculpture as objectively as possible, so that the work will be well lit and recognizable. However, I often use lighting or my angle of view as a way of highlighting specific aspects of the object, perhaps drawing attention to a profile or trait that has been foregrounded by the sculptor. More than this, however, is the existence of the series as a whole, since it now includes well over one thousand objects. It is both an archive and a form of agency, and in fact many of the objects that I have photographed are rarely or never placed on view, and so in many ways, the work it has produced may be the only way many viewers will ever be able to experience these objects.

There is also the issue of experiencing these works in sometimes vastly different contexts than those imagined by their creators. For example, how might our interpretation of a work change if it were presented as scientific evidence of human difference, or as an example of individual self-expression, an artistic style, directed by a commissioning body, or the product of a historic period? As with so many of these contested objects, context is everything and nothing, at the same time.

 

DOI

What were some of the challenges of photographing this bust in particular, and of sculpture in general?

On a technical level, the Harwood bust is a challenging work to photograph precisely because it is so dark and shiny. From nearly every angle it catches reflections on its highly polished surface. In addition, it was, and is, on a very high pedestal and so I had to stand very precariously on a stepladder and try to manipulate a very old 8×10 Deardorff camera to get the shot. Lastly of course, I was only able to photograph in the galleries on Mondays when the museum is closed to the public, so it actually took many weeks to get the right shot. At the Yale Center for British Art, I had additional challenges in not being able to control the lighting.

In general, the greatest challenge with photographing sculpture is trying to get access to the objects, working around museum hours, and also photographing something that often cannot be moved.

On a more conceptual level, all photographers take pictures, but in this case, they are pictures of someone else’s artwork. So the challenge for me is often to try to capture something particular about a given sculpture, just as one might try to capture something unique or telling about a person in a portrait. In my case, I was trying to understand why a given feature might have been given emphasis by the sculptor. In some cases, I would dramatically alter the conventional lighting of the sculpture to “uncover” some quality or feature not present in the museum presentation.

For example, I might shoot one sculpture to foreground an idealized treatment of the face, while in another I might focus on a highly detailed treatment of facial features, like wrinkles in eighteenth-century terracotta portrait busts, to highlight a particular fascination with character analysis present in that time period.

I think for me there was also a conceptual level which allowed me to look at all these representations as just that, as representations that could be studied, considered, and that such considerations could be used to create a new work of art that would do a different kind of work than those articulated in the original object. What does race look like? What does whiteness look like? What other factors might also be a play? And so on.

DOI

What kind of digital enhancement or technical manipulation, for example, through lighting, went into the construction of the jet-black colour of the Harwood bust? What were you hoping to achieve by highlighting its blackness?

The image was produced in black and white in order to reduce the material differences between the objects juxtaposed and the colour or treatment of the stone in particular. In a way it was also a response to the question and ongoing debate or discussion about which of the two Harwood busts came first. I was wondering how much the ordering of their production would change their significance, and asking myself, what could their differences tell us, and how might that change depending on which one came first? For example, the scar and hair are treated very differently in both of the sculptures, so much so that they could easily be seen as two different works. Then there is the choice of material, the treatment of the shoulders and the back, and so on.

So rather than simply anaesthetizing what are very different and beautiful surfaces I wanted to create a work that might sketch out a different set of questions than those I had been hearing. It was also intended to encourage the viewer to consider the very question of demarcation itself, the mark-making that is sculpture.

DOI

What were some of the challenges of photographing this bust in particular, and of sculpture in general?

On a technical level, the Harwood bust is a challenging work to photograph precisely because it is so dark and shiny. From nearly every angle it catches reflections on its highly polished surface. In addition, it was, and is, on a very high pedestal and so I had to stand very precariously on a stepladder and try to manipulate a very old 8×10 Deardorff camera to get the shot. Lastly of course, I was only able to photograph in the galleries on Mondays when the museum is closed to the public, so it actually took many weeks to get the right shot. At the Yale Center for British Art, I had additional challenges in not being able to control the lighting.

DOI

What did you notice about the differences between the Yale and the Getty busts as you photographed them?

Did Harwood humanize the figure more in one than the other, did he racialize one more than the other, were there specific distinct locations imagined for each sculpture? Here, we can think of the backs of the sculptures. One seems to have been intended for a niche or alcove. And for myself, I was also wondering about the differences in the way the objects are displayed. Location, lighting, and even height, all impact my perception of the work. Is one more accurate than the other? Are they sculptural types or portraits? And what critical tools can we use to distinguish the similarities and differences between them?

In eliminating the colour, I wanted to draw attention to the form. I also brought the contrast levels closer together because they were taken in very different lighting conditions. To my eye they look very different, and these marks of difference seem to want to tell another story, one beyond the individual depicted, and one beyond which came first. I wanted the image to remind us that each work was the result of physical acts, created in different moments, which when brought together, might add up to more than a literal description of light on stone in a still evolving narrative that is very much tied to the present: tied to what is visible, and what can never be visible.

DOI

Juxtaposition plays a big role in your image-making, often a kind of “face-off” between different works. What does juxtaposition do for you?

Juxtaposition allows the works to create new dialogues. It often literally creates an empty or open space between objects, which the viewer can then fill with their own questions or answers. It is a generative space. It marks a potential; a site for dialogue; it can stand in for time; it can be the space between texts. This de-contextualization can sometimes help to raise questions about racial formation, gender normativity, and any number of other topics. Lastly, of course, this juxtaposition is a way to give the objects life again. It allows them to enter into current debates. Many of the objects I photograph are quite remarkable and so even though the context in which they came into being may have changed, shifted, or even become unrecognizable, there is no reason why we cannot still productively engage with them. One need only think of the recent media coverage on police violence to be reminded that the discussion of race and racial profiling is anything but a thing of the past.

DOI

Did your image-making of the busts shift or change your overall thinking about racial profiling and the history of ethnographic typecasting? What new knowledge did it add or questions did it raise for your practice and thinking?

It was after photographing the Harwood bust at the Getty that I also began looking for and photographing other sculptural depictions of race, including works by Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (1827–1905) and Malvina Hoffman as well as the Harwood bust held at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. So, yes, it set me on a path to photograph more works by other artists and in different kinds of collections, ultimately drawing on both the fine arts and the sciences as a way of re-thinking the role three-dimensional work has contributed to our understanding of race within museums and beyond.

DOI

Acknowledgements

DOIThis essay follows from several years of research undertaken to develop the exhibition Figures of Empire, held at the Yale Center for British Art in 2014, which Cyra Levenson co-curated with Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer, doctoral candidates in the History of Art at Yale University. The authors extend their gratitude to Esther and Meredith, and to the many colleagues and faculty at Yale who supported the project. In addition they wish to thank Sarah V. Turner and Hana Leaper of the PMC, Anne-Lise Desmas and Julie Wolfe of The J. Paul Getty Museum, and Matthew Hargraves of the YCBA.

About the authors

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Cyra LevensonCyra Levenson is Associate Curator of Education at the Yale Center for British Art. In 2014, along with Ph.D. candidates Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer, she curated Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain at YCBA.
  • Head and shoulders portrait of Chi-ming YangChi-ming Yang received her Ph.D. in English from Cornell University and her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University with emphases in Spanish, Chinese, and English. She specializes in the literary and visual culture of race and empire, with a focus on East-West cultural exchanges stretching from the early modern period to the 18th century, and up to the contemporary moment. Her scholarship is interdisciplinary and comparative in approach, crossing the bounds of British, American, Asian, and Latin American studies. Primary fields of research include: transatlantic/transpacific exchanges; science and race; material culture and globalism; contemporary/postcolonial art, film, and visual culture. Her book, Performing China: Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-century England, 1660-1760 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), is a study of the European fascination with Asia. It examines how China became an intensely debated example of virtue amidst England’s new consumer culture. Her new work concerns race, chinoiserie, transatlantic slavery, and the cultural impact of global flows of silver between Latin America and East Asia.
  • Head and shoulders portrait of Ken Gonzales-DayKen Gonzales-Day’s interdisciplinary and conceptually grounded projects consider the history of photography, the construction of race, and the limits of representational systems ranging from the lynching photograph to museum display. Ken Gonzales-Day received his MFA from UC Irvine; MA from Hunter College; was a Van Leer Fellow at the Whitney Museum’s ISP. He was a Senior Fellow and a SARF Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. Gonzales-Day’s photographs have been exhibited at: The J. Paul Getty Museum; LACMA; The Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum; The New Museum; REDCAT; LAXART; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Generali Foundation, Vienna; Museum of the City, Mexico City, among others. His Books include Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke) and Profiled (LACMA).
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