Pro­files in chiaroscuro

Black Out: Sil­hou­ettes Then and Now

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Grace Paraz­zoli

Be­fore pho­tog­ra­phy spread the abil­ity to have one’s like­ness pre­served, there were sil­hou­ettes. Cheaper and faster to pro­duce than oil paint­ings, sil­hou­ettes ex­ploded in pop­u­lar­ity in the early 19th cen­tury, when itin­er­ant sil­hou­ette artists ad­ver­tised their skills in news­pa­pers and draw­ing-room en­thu­si­asts prac­ticed trac­ing shad­ows by can­dle­light. In the early days of the repub­lic, sil­hou­ettes were pre­sented as a demo­cratic art that all could par­tic­i­pate in. Not­with­stand­ing their French name, they were, in spirit, to­tally Amer­i­can.

The sil­hou­ette craze was short-lived, but its im­por­tance lives on. The Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, part of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion in Washington, is re­vis­it­ing this once ubiq­ui­tous, now ob­scure art form in Black Out: Sil­hou­ettes Then and Now, an ex­hi­bi­tion that opened in May and con­tin­ues through March 2019. It is ac­com­pa­nied by a cat­a­log edited by cu­ra­tor Asma Naeem. Black Out, notes Na­tional Por­trait Gallery direc­tor Kim Sa­jet in the cat­a­log’s fore­word, is the first ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion on the sil­hou­ette’s de­vel­op­ment; the form has long been viewed as a lower form of art than painted and sculpted works.

The “then” part of the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes 19th­cen­tury works by pro­lific sil­hou­et­tists Au­guste Edouart, a French­man who some­times em­bel­lished his sil­hou­ettes with chalk de­tail­ing and wa­ter­color or litho­graph back­grounds, and Martha Ann Honey­well, who signed her works “writ­ten with­out hands.” Honey­well was born with no hands and with only three toes on one foot. Ac­cord­ing to Lau­rel Daen, as cited in Alexan­der Ne­merov’s cat­a­log en­try on Honey­well, the artist used her mouth, toes, and one of her arms to com­plete her works. Moses Wil­liams, who was a for­mer slave of painter Charles Will­son Peale, was among the most im­por­tant sil­hou­ette artists, creat­ing many thou­sands of por­traits at Peale’s mu­seum in Philadel­phia. Ac­cord­ing to Naeem, “The sight of Wil­liams op­er­at­ing the phys­iog­no­trace [a trac­ing ma­chine] at the Peale Mu­seum on a daily ba­sis, year

af­ter year, of­fered a con­sis­tent, if some­what tepid, re­buke to the proslav­ery dis­course of sup­pres­sion and forcible re­strain­ing of black peo­ple.”

Be­cause of Wil­liams’ pri­mary role in sil­hou­ette mak­ing, and be­cause sil­hou­ettes were made of slaves and re­cently cap­tured Africans, such as the men who re­volted on the slave ship Amis­tad, sil­hou­ettes in some ways pro­vided rep­re­sen­ta­tion that other art forms did not. But, Naeem writes, “The sig­nif­i­cance of en­slaved in­di­vid­u­als’ sil­hou­ettes was solely a pro­pri­etary one, one that op­er­ated across such dis­tances as auc­tion blocks, pseu­do­sci­en­tific lecterns, and cot­ton fields. In con­trast, sil­hou­ettes of white Amer­i­cans cir­cu­lated as do­mes­tic heir­looms to be viewed within close con­fines in their maple frames or lov­ingly ar­ranged al­bums.” In her es­say on Wil­liams’ sil­hou­ettes of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, Gwen­dolyn DuBois Shaw dis­cusses the ways in which sil­hou­ettes might “cap­ture and cod­ify racial dif­fer­ence” — for in­stance, in a por­trait of a man named Was­con­sca (tribe un­clear) by ei­ther Wil­liams or Peale that high­lights “ethno­graphic de­tails and ac­cou­trements of cul­tural dif­fer­ence,” such as a lock of hair seem­ingly tied with a feather high upon Was­con­sca’s head.

Scru­tiny of Amer­i­can racial cod­i­fi­ca­tion is brought into the “now” part of Black Out in works by Kara Walker, who uses the flat, seem­ingly in­nocu­ous sil­hou­ette to dis­tort an­te­bel­lum iconog­ra­phy into ex­traor­di­nary scenes of vi­o­lence and chaos. In the wall-span­ning Aun­tie Walker’s Wall Sam­pler for Sav­ages and Aun­tie Walker’s Wall Sam­pler for Civil­ians (both 2013), rec­og­niz­able plan­ta­tion tropes — such as the child with Topsy hair and the hoop-skirted South­ern belle — are placed along­side dis­em­bod­ied heads, stab­bings with spears, and a bomb with a burn­ing fuse. Walker, who first de­buted her work in the 1990s, said of sil­hou­ettes in a New Yorker ar­ti­cle quoted in the cat­a­log, “I was struck by the irony of so many of my con­cerns be­ing ad­dressed: blank/black, hole/whole, shadow/ sub­stance, etc. (There’s also the great quote from So­journer Truth: ‘I sell the shadow to sup­port the sub­stance.’)”

The ex­hi­bi­tion’s other con­tem­po­rary artists use the tra­di­tion­ally two-di­men­sional sil­hou­ette to, per­haps para­dox­i­cally, ex­plore di­men­sion­al­ity. In Camille Ut­ter­back’s Ex­ter­nal Mea­sures (2001-2008), an over­head cam­era cap­tures the viewer’s image — a bird’seye sil­hou­ette — and pro­jects her move­ments onto a screen of ab­stract graph­ics. Kristi Malakoff’s largescale de­pic­tion of chil­dren danc­ing around a may­pole looks sculp­tural from some van­tage points and flat from oth­ers. Kumi Ya­mashita cre­ates in­di­vid­u­al­ized pro­files of peo­ple not from ma­te­ri­als but from the shad­ows cast by them. For Origami (2017), she metic­u­lously shaped origami pa­pers un­til their con­vex­i­ties cast shad­ows that form pro­files. Naeem de­scribes how Ya­mashita took pho­to­graphs while trav­el­ing in New Mex­ico, even­tu­ally trans­form­ing sub­jects’ phys­i­cal fea­tures into shadow ones. Origami is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum in Santa Fe; a sim­i­lar work is fea­tured in Black Out.

The sil­hou­ette form may seem dated, a relic of a com­pli­cated time in our young coun­try’s his­tory. But both its early and more re­cent man­i­fes­ta­tions show that when brought to light, our shad­ows can be rev­e­la­tory.

Black Out: Sil­hou­ettes Then and Now, edited by Asma Naeem, is pub­lished by Prince­ton Univer­sity Press. The ex­hi­bi­tion con­tin­ues at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery (, 202-633-8300) through March 10, 2019.

Au­guste Edouart: Josephine Clifton, 1842; litho­graph, chalk, and cut pa­per on pa­per; cour­tesy Na­tional Por­trait Gallery; top right, Raphaelle Peale or Moses Wil­liams: Moses Wil­liams, Cut­ter of Pro­files, circa 1803, cut pa­per and ink on pa­per, cour­tesy The Li­brary Com­pany of Philadel­phia

Kristi Malakoff: Maibaum, 2009, pa­per and foam core; cour­tesy the artist

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