Monday, February 25, 2013

Friday night at the Louvre

Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1870

It’s been so long since I went into the Louvre on a Friday night that not even sub-zero temperatures could keep me from finally going in last week.

I headed for the tiny space given over to American and British painting at the end of the halls and halls of Italian and Spanish painting in the Denon wing. The Louvre has been loaned three “emblematic” works of American genre painting that have given occasion to present a small exhibition, entitled Aux sources de la peinture de genre américaine. While the exhibition around the apparent origins of American genre painting was not fully convincing, the three American paintings were just wonderful. Even though they were not part of the exhibition, I also enjoyed seeing some of the British paintings from the same era on the opposite wall. The British paintings just happened to be hanging nearby, but because of their proximity, it was difficult not to think about the Turner, Constable and Gainsborough together with the three American works.

George Caleb Bingham,  The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1877-78 
My favorite of the American works was Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South, 1870. The painting is both unusual and fascinating because it is set in the back yard of a bar in Washington DC. At this time, it was most usual to find blacks on a plantation in the South, and similarly, unusual to see whole works given over to their culture. As the informative text that accompanied the painting at the Louvre tells us, these works were unusual because they depicted slaves, because they depict daily life, and because they chose not to represent history on a grand scale. Of course, the depiction of these black people is contradictory. The one man plays a banjo in the middle of the yard, a yard that becomes a stage onto which all the other participants in the scene look eagerly. While everyone appears to be relatively jovial, carefree, and well groomed if not richly dressed, the scene is one of squalor and poverty. The painting is also made curious by the intermingling of blacks and whites – even as slavery had just been abolished, it is rare to see blacks and whites happily co-existing. In painting as in life, this did not really happen for another one hundred years. I understood these contradictions as indicative of those that ran through America at this time more generally. Even though Johnson was painting in a post-abolitionist America, racism ran high and equality was still over one hundred years into the future.

Jan Steen, Festive Family Meal (1674)
George Caleb Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1877-78 was the other delightful painting on display at the Louvre. The blue of the sky is striking, as is the joy of the men transporting goods down the Mississippi. Again, like the Johnson painting, the men here are making music in celebration no doubt of a day’s work well done.  The Jolly Flatboatmen is also striking for its representation of everyday life, of workmen, not the privileged industrialists who were the more common subject of painting and other representations of the period. And, even more noticeable, is that Bingham celebrates working class life, unreservedly. The Louvre places Bingham’s work next to Jan Steen’s Festive Family Meal (1674) which exudes the same joy and celebration of working class life.
John Constable, Weymouth Bay with Approaching Storm, 1819
The British paintings exhibited opposite were painted in the same century, but tell of a very different world. The looming grey sky of Weymouth Bay with Approaching Storm is not only diametrically opposed in colour and tone to the open blue skies above the Mississippi, but this is a world in which all expression is mirrored in nature, not in the people who are placed at the centre of the narrative written by everyday life.  The distinction between the British and the American paintings can also be seen in, for example, the difference of J.M.W. Turner’s Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Distance” c. 1845. Even though here the scene is one of lightness and openness, the landscape is unsettled and in commotion, a commotion caught in the energy of the brushstroke. Turner was — in my eyes at least — renowned for daring to blur the horizon line in one of the most radical nineteenth century gestures towards abstraction. Thus, where land, sea and sky meet, where one finishes and the other begins is unclear in Turner’s landscape. And because we no longer have this line with which to measure our place within the world, there is so much uncertainty on a horizon that we can nevertheless not see.  This is in distinction to the very ordered and stable narratives told through the equally controlled and smooth painted surface of the American genre paintings. 

J M W Turner,  Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Distance c. 1845
I know the American genre paintings are not meant to be viewed through comparison to British Romanticism, but their display at the Louvre nevertheless invites such a reading. Ultimately, the juxtaposition lead me to recognize that despite the contradictions and unsettling nature of race representation and relations in a post-Abolition era, the world pictured is not only filled with apparent celebration, it is also certain, controlled and somewhat non-negotiable. Of course, even though Johnson and Bingham show courage to represent the otherwise invisible world of black America in the nineteenth century, the image must be necessarily compromised for the fear of what might happen if the truth be told.

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