Asma Naeem on Black Out

Black Out Naeem book coverBefore the advent of photography in 1839, Americans were consumed by the fashion for silhouette portraits. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes, gathers leading experts to shed light on the surprisingly complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simple art form. Silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation, roiling with tensions over slavery and political independence.  Presenting the distinctly American story behind silhouettes, Black Out vividly delves into the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of this evocative, ever popular form of portraiture.

Here, author Asma Naeem discusses her interest in the form, as well as some of the surprises she discovered during her research.

The exhibit this book accompanies is curated by Naeem and runs through March 10, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the inspiration for Black Out?

The spark for Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now happened many years ago on a brilliant sunlit day as I stood in front of an antiques shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Tucked in the corner of the window, away from the mahogany Chippendale secretary, Federal convex mirrors, and handsome Windsor chairs, were some of the most arresting objects of early Americana that I had ever seen. The simplicity of design, the lustrous maple and gilt frames, the creamy paper, the intense black shapes cut by human hands, not to mention the intimate nature of the portraits – all of these things formed an indelible impression.

Imagine my pleasure years later when I joined the National Portrait Gallery and became a steward of one of the most stellar collections of silhouettes in the country.

Once I began researching these objects, however, different impressions began to form, impressions of an America that many of us didn’t know existed.

Why did you decide to include both historical and contemporary artists?

Once I decided to create an exhibition on silhouettes, suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw silhouettes—on signage, on book covers, on my mobile phone, and of course, in thrilling contemporary art installations by established and emerging artists alike. I knew then that I had to share these discoveries, known only to handfuls of experts, with the public at large.

What was your research process like?

I conceived of this show four years ago and it has been a years-long journey to find and then narrow down the list of objects for the exhibition. I wanted this show and catalogue to be more than your grandmother’s silhouettes, so I had to spend a lot of time looking for unique objects, both historical and contemporary. I went to many small historical societies to unearth their treasures. I encountered some of the most generous archivists and a few ghost stories along the way! I also had to spend much time accumulating all of the scholarship on silhouettes, much of which is written for antique collectors. For the contemporary works, I visited the artists in their studios or galleries when possible, and had numerous conversations about what I envisioned the show to look like and how their work fit in that vision.

Were you expecting to find so much historical material dealing with race, enslavement, and disability?

Yes, and no. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the traditional medium of portraiture, oil on canvas, precluded the less wealthy, women, and people of color because of its expensive, exclusive status. I didn’t expect to find such interesting, beautiful portraits of African Americans, the disabled, and such spunky women, particularly within our own collection here at the Portrait Gallery.

What can studying the history of the silhouette teach us about the representation of identity today?

This book will hopefully deepen our understanding of how Americans—women, men, black, white, states men, laborers—wanted to see themselves in the years of the Early Republic. We have always been a polyphonic, vibrant society. It also opens new pathways between our past and our present in terms of period notions of individualism, racial profiling, power, and even how our digital selves can be critiqued through the medium of portraiture.

Who else contributed essays to the book?

This project has been enriched and transformed by some of the most erudite minds in American art and conservation. I was fortunate to have essays written by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Art on Paper at the Harvard Art Museums.

Nemerov and Shaw each probe the cultural contours of the remarkable worlds of unconventional nineteenth-century silhouettists Martha Ann Honeywell and Moses Williams, respectively. Knipe carefully examines silhouettes from the inside out, revealing various aspects of their material composition—about the paper, the scissors, and so forth—that many readers will find surprising.

Anne Verplanck, associate professor of American studies and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who is one the preeminent scholars on silhouettes in the country, also was generous enough to write entries on many of the objects, not to mention offer her invaluable expertise to me regarding the historical art form on numerous occasions.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will find silhouettes as fascinating, complicated, and significant in the history of American art as I do. I very much want the reader to see how silhouettes, like other forms of craft, should no longer be devalued in the art canon, and do, in fact, offer revelatory insights into how our country’s racial, social, and political history. I also would like to see silhouettes repositioned in our understanding of portraiture – what an incredibly popular and democratizing force they were in Early Republic America – well before the advent of photography in 1839. Without silhouettes, we would not have as much insight into the lives of such overlooked populations as the enslaved, same-sex couples, international envoys, and the disabled. And with the contemporary works, I’d offer silhouettes as an enduring, capacious, and utterly modern mode of expression, with their seemingly contradictory qualities of generality and specificity, blackness, playfulness, and the intersection with our social media profiles of our digital selves. The four female contemporary artists featured have created breathtaking, complex works that confirm that silhouettes are here to stay.

Asma Naeem is curator of prints, drawings, and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery.

 

A peek inside Cézanne Portraits

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) may be best known for his landscapes, but he also painted some 160 portraits throughout his exceptional career. This major work establishes portraiture as an essential practice for Cézanne, from his earliest self-portraits in the 1860s; to his famous depictions of figures including his wife Hortense Fiquet, the writer Emile Zola, and the art dealer Ambroise Vollard; and concluding with a poignant series of portraits of his gardener Vallier, made shortly before Cézanne’s death. Beautifully illustrated with works of art drawn from public and private collections around the world, Cézanne Portraits presents an astonishingly broad range of images that reveal the most personal and human qualities of this remarkable artist. Check out the trailer below to learn more about the book, and the exhibition schedule below:

Exhibition Schedule:
National Portrait Gallery, London (October 26, 2017 to February 11, 2018)
National Gallery of Art, Washington (March 25 to July 1, 2018

Happy birthday, John Singer Sargent

Over on Instagram we’re giving a shout out to John Singer Sargent, born 161 years ago today. Kilmurray & Ormond’s lavish book on his work has been in print for 18 years, and remains a perennial favorite. Here it is perched on our courtyard steps, enjoying the unseasonably warm breeze:

 

The remarkable portraits for which John Singer Sargent is most famous are only one aspect of a career that included landscapes, watercolors, figure subjects, and murals. Even within portraiture, his style ranged from bold experiments to studied formality. And the subjects of his paintings were as varied as his styles, including the leaders of fashionable society, rural laborers, city streets, remote mountains, and the front lines of World War I. John Singer Sargent, edited by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond surveys and evaluates the extraordinary range of Sargent’s work, and reproduces 150 of his paintings in color.

Happy birthday to a man widely considered to be the leading portrait painter of his generation.