Portraits and Personhood

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Gary Calcagno on Bridget Cooks‘s essay about portraits and identity. 

If you wanted to be memorialized, how would you want to be represented? A grand oil painting, a black-and-white photo, or maybe an abstracted sculpture?

When reading Bridget Cooks’s essay in her new co-edited publication, Mannequins in Museums, I was struck by the visceral scenes in the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore where wax figures and mannequins present African American history and the Black experience to write a history that has far too often been overlooked.

As Cooks writes, mannequins engage us in ways traditional 2D media do not. Life-sized famous figures, like W.E.B. DuBois and the Egyptian pharaoh Imhotep, stand in front of visitors and prompt an immediacy that founders Drs. Elmer and Joanne Martin felt was important in presenting African American history to the Baltimore community. Portraits, both painted or sculpted, remind us of those who came before us and prompt us to think about the accomplishments and legacies of memorialized figures.

Famous figures have been immortalized in artworks for millennia across various media. From photos like Alvin Coburn’s photogravure of Theodore Roosevelt (1907) to Delacroix’s painting of violinist and composer Nicolo Paganini (1831), these figures are both recognizable yet distant. We know Roosevelt by his furry mustache and round specs while the violin serves as Paganini’s attribute in his portrait.

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, Paganini, 1831, Oil on cardboard on wood panel, 17 5/8 x 11 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1922.

Portraits show us a likeness of a person that can be highlighted and blurred too. While contemporary accounts remarked on Paganini’s missing teeth or pallid complexion, Delacroix depicts the virtuoso illuminated by stage light against a dark backdrop. Think of photographs today that undergo filters and retouching that present a familiar yet modified reality. Duncan Phillips even referred to the portrait as a “tiny soul-portrait” perhaps commenting on Delacroix’s ability to capture Paganini’s lifelike image in paint. Yet, the immediacy of Paganini is not as close to us compared to something like a sculpture that enters our physical space.

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018, Terracotta, graphite ink, salt-fired porcelain, and epoxy, 20 x 8 in., The Phillips Collection, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2019

Compare Simone Leigh’s No Face (Crown Heights) (2018), for example, where a human bust is both present and absent. The black porcelain blooms with blue terracotta spirals where a face would be as Leigh obfuscates the traditional portrait bust. Leigh describes her work as “auto-ethnographic” as the work references Crown Heights, a haven in Brooklyn for Black free people in the nineteenth century. The bust is no single individual but instead references a whole community including the tradition of unnamed African women potters. While the Great Blacks in Wax Museum honors individuals in full-length wax, Leigh honors unnamed groups in a single terracotta bust.

To hear more from Bridget Cooks, join us on November 17 at 6 pm for “Haunted: The Black Body as Ancestor and Spectre” where Professor Cooks will be in conversation with Robert Cozzolino, curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The lecture is part of a series in partnership with the University of Maryland addressing racial justice across disciplines, Antiracism: Communities + Collaborations.

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