Since that survey, the Met has acquired another major work by Carpeaux, one of two marble statues depicting an enslaved woman, known by the words engraved on her pedestal, “Why Was I Born Enslaved!” The museum has now put up a smaller but more focused display devoted to this work, including reproductions in terracotta, terracotta, and plaster, as well as sculptures, medallions, and other decorative pieces alluding to the abolitionist movement in France and its colonies. It is accompanied by a book of investigative essays on the role of ethnography and colonialism in shaping how people of African descent are represented in France during the nineteenth century.
“Why were they born enslaved!” It is an unsettling and compelling portrait of a woman, with a rope cutting through her exposed arms and breasts, and a defiant but sad look on her wrinkled face. The original of what would become a mass-produced luxury piece—a copy owned by Empress Eugenie and prominently displayed—was produced in 1868, just three years after slavery had ended in the United States, but 20 years after slavery had been abolished in the Atlantic by the French colonies. Unlike the equally famous abolitionist picture, Josiah Wedgwood c. 1787 – Medal for a kneeling black man, chained, pleading with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” , a bust of Carbo is a nod to slavery in France, and is more of a patriotic exercise of congratulation than a direct appeal to conscience. This makes it particularly problematic.
If slavery was indeed abolished, what feelings is this bust supposed to inspire? The catalog articles refer to a woman’s apparent sensuality, to the erotic drama of her family and the way she invites viewers, especially men, to make her objective for visual gratification. It also raises doubts about the depth and veracity of Carbo’s anti-slavery views, and thus, the sincerity of France’s belief in the true equality of the people in its far-flung empire.
“Why were they born enslaved!” Presented as an exercise in nineteenth-century ethnography, an attempt to codify and generalize racial types, which became intertwined with a larger project to assimilate colonial subjects into a universal idea of French citizenship and identity.
Ethnographic sculpture was inversely complex with a wild mix of goals and motives, and this gallery does a good job of revealing that complexity. On the one hand, it included a new, more rigorous look at its subjects, an attempt to depict people of different races not through the traditions of academic art, but through an actual interest in the world and its diversity. Nor can one look at “why was he born a slave!” (and other sculptures on display, including the grandiose works of contemporary Charles-Henri Joseph Cordier Carbeaux) without feeling real people as a source and inspiration at some point in the creative process. In the case of Carbo’s bust, it was probably Louise Colling, a black woman from Norfolk, who was living in Paris at the time.
But the new, more rigorous effort to look at the world was also part of the pseudo-scientific goal of making broad generalizations about races and their essential nature, with the hierarchy in which the white artist from Paris was the natural arbiter of all distinctions. Cordier, who wrapped his African figures in robes of marble or bronze, may have been searching for the beauty unique to other races. But the particular beauty he found, and the way he dressed his characters with classic references, suggested that he was legendaryizing his subjects within an decidedly European sense of what was attractive and universal.
The Met Gallery, with around 35 pieces, features two contemporary works that demonstrate the long shadow cast by Carpeaux’s bust. Made of cast marble dust and resin, Kehinde Wiley’s “After La Négresse, 1872” shows a young black man in a Lakers jersey, his head upturned in the same awkward way Carpeaux is referring to. It was part of a series of 250, and the overt mercantilism of its reproduction indicates the commercial forces that led Carpeaux to double his business. It also, conspicuously, captures the eroticism of the original, paraphrasing it in homonymous terms.
Most important and moving is Kara Walker’s 2017 film “Negress,” a plaster cast made of a Carpeaux bust, but projected on the floor, illuminated by a single light. The plaster appears as a void bounded by the famous distressed face, and suggests the desire and absurdity of any effort to get “inside” into the head of the unknown character who modeled Carbo.
This gesture sums up the show’s darkest question: What happens as we look intently at this face before us? Does our appearance simply expand the exploitation that makes Karbox both theatrical and indulgent? Is he recolonizing this woman and thus all women of color? Is there an innocent participation in this exhibition?
Some articles in the catalog clearly state that there can be no pleasure in something that is not primarily an extension of the violence it is supposed to condemn. This makes the Carpeaux exhibition a much darker project than the 2014 exhibition, which acknowledged the artist’s complexity and intimate engagement with the corrupt and imperial forces that led France at the time. But the stakes at the 2014 show weren’t high, and the guilt pleasure can be snatched from the darker assumptions.
There is no such offer here. This leaves this bust, in its many iterations, in a strange place. It embodies a history that must be told and implicates us in that history. He does so because he is a very successful art object, vividly expressive, dramatic and engaging. We leave with the paradoxical sense that we are doomed and privileged to live with it, as it overshadows the history of race and acting.
Narratives of Emancipation: Reworking Carpeaux Until March 5, 2023, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org.