Call me a squishy centrist, but, while I think monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and King Leopold don’t deserve to stand in perpetuity, I sympathize with arguments that their removal or relocation deserves more due process than that afforded by crowds of protesters. That the mania for statue toppling has spread beyond Confederate generals and monsters like Leopold to such figures as Christopher Columbus and Ulysses S. Grant seems somewhere between counterproductive and scary.
But, notwithstanding such reservations, which extend to the anarchic character of Black Lives Matter and its amorphous, expansive list of demands, I found something stirring about artist Marc Quinn’s recent unauthorized erection of his newly created statue of Bristol Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid, fist raised in a Black Power salute, atop a plinth formerly occupied by a monument to the slave trader Edward Colston. Quinn’s sculpture, made with Reid’s cooperation, replicates her triumphant gesture of climbing atop the plinth after protesters toppled the statue and rolled it into the harbor.
But almost as soon as the sculpture appeared, Quinn, who is white, drew criticism for his “opportunistic stunt” from Thomas J. Price, a black artist who told the Guardian that “it would be far more useful if white artists confronted ‘whiteness’ as opposed to using the lack of black representation in art to find relevance for themselves.” Booker prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo, on the other hand, cheered what she called “a demonstrable commitment to the cause of Black Lives Matter in that it shows active allyship. Isn’t this what we need? Allies? … It’s also a personal initiative and not a publicly funded piece of art. For now, at least, we have another statue of a black woman on the streets of Britain.” That wasn’t good enough for artist Larry Achiampong, who, like Price, opined that for the sake of “the redistribution of equity, of power,” Quinn should have given the resources he used making the sculpture to “support some young black artists to make something—to put something up there.” The city removed the new statue, taking a swipe at Quinn’s London residency, within about 24 hours.
Artistic circles, like political ones, are vulnerable to circular firing squads. But you could say that Quinn’s gesture is part of a tradition of white, male artists monumentalizing disadvantaged women and heroicizing black figures in artworks that lend themselves to political interpretations—though not always the ones the artists had in mind. Images of Quinn’s A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) went viral at the same time as two exhibitions were held: Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí at the Saint Louis Art Museum and J. M. W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum—both on view until 7 September 2020.
Co-organized with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the St. Louis exhibition traces the influence of the French Barbizon school painter and draftsman Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) on several generations of artists across Europe and the United States. While the term avant-garde is often associated with twentieth-century art, co-curator Simon Kelly notes in the catalogue that it was first coined in 1825 to refer to artists’ roles “in the vanguard of social and political reform” and cites an obituary by republican critic Philippe Burty that is “completely modern in spirit” and claims that, “had the artist lived longer, his work ‘would have found its development and shone brightly in the republican society into which we are entering.’”
For Kelly, the “connection between radical art and politics in Millet’s work allies him with an avant-garde tradition associated with Eugène Delacroix, particularly his Liberty Leading the People—a monumental 1830 painting that allegorically casts a bare-breasted woman as the head of that year’s July Revolution, which overthrew King Charles X—”and [with] Gustave Courbet, especially the latter’s peasant subjects.” Before we consider Millet’s peasants, particularly the women, note the similarities and differences between Liberty’s gesture in the Delacroix painting and Reid’s in Quinn’s sculpture. Liberty wears a Phyrgian cap; Reid a beret reminiscent of the kind seen in iconic images of Che Guevara, minus the star. Liberty holds the flag of the French Revolution in her right hand and a musket in her left while stepping over kneeling and dying bodies; Reid’s right fist is similarly raised, but she’s unarmed and stands in triumph, her revolution a fait accompli, if only symbolically.
By 1848, the year of the Springtime of the Peoples, Delacroix decided he’d had quite enough of revolution and decamped to the countryside to make monumental flower paintings, which had their own influence on future artists. Millet produced a semi-nude, Delacroix-reminiscent “Liberty” drawing related to a now lost painting that he unsuccessfully submitted to a competition organized by the Second Republic administration. “Millet was among the most enthusiastic participants in this competition, and his mother wrote to him at the time that he was ‘working like a devil for the Republic,’” writes Kelly, who notes that Millet, who had been painting and drawing “surprisingly sensual and erotic, even violent” nudes, “began to paint peasant subjects in the late 1840s, after apparently being shamed by a discussion about the licentiousness of his nudes.”
In his 1857 Salon submission The Gleaners, Millet depicts a centuries-old practice—that of collecting stalks and ears of wheat left behind after a harvest—that rural communities had long permitted peasants to pursue free of charge. By the 1850s, however, landowners increasingly—and controversially—insisted on selling the right to glean. “Within the context of this debate over the growing alienation of the gleaner within a capitalist economy, Millet represented three women with powerful curving and echoing forms that highlighted and ennobled their stoic labor,” Kelly writes. “He emphasized their isolation from the large-scale, organized farm activity in the distance, overseen by a foreman on horseback.” (The painting below is an earlier work in the series.)
As unthreateningly nostalgic as many viewers find such imagery today—although it might also provoke thoughts of today’s essential, yet ill-treated, migrant workers—it proved contentious when first exhibited. “Conservatives saw a threatening message in Millet’s sympathetic representation of these impoverished outsiders,” Kelly writes: “The journalist Jean Rousseau thought the work incited revolution and that it recalled ‘the pikes and scaffolds of 1793.’ The republican art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary, however, saw that Millet gave a nobility to his subjects: he noted that though the painting ‘recalls terrible misery,’ it was ‘one of those pages of true and great nature, as Homer and Virgil found.’”
“Millet and Modern Art” features works by an international array of artists who seem to have shared that sentiment, from Winslow Homer’s The Return of the Gleaner (1867), in which the heroicized woman’s upright pose is closer to that of Liberty’s and Reid’s, to Angelo Morbelli’s massive, dazzlingly colorful In the Rice Fields (1901). Though it depicts rice workers, “Morbelli’s bending women owe an undeniable debt to Millet’s Gleaners, which the Italian artist could have seen during his visit to the 1889 Exposition Universelle,” Kelly writes. “For all its color, Morbelli’s work emphasized the backbreaking toil of the women and carried a message of social critique. He entitled an earlier version of the picture For Eighty Cents! … referencing the poor wages of these seasonal workers whose plight was exacerbated by an agricultural crisis of the early 1890s.”
Millet’s female subjects also included milkmaids, apple gatherers, washerwomen, butter churners, firewood gatherers and shepherdesses—often silhouetted. It’s interesting that Quinn, citing the Instagram photo of Reid that inspired his statue, told the Guardian, “The image is a silhouette: she looked like a sculpture already. I’ve been making portraits of refugees using 3D scanning over the last year and applied the same technology to this.” Quinn also said that his 2004 statue Alison Lapper Pregnant, commissioned for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, “contributed to moving the narrative around disability forward in the UK.” (Lapper, an artist, was born without arms and with shortened legs.) I don’t know what importance, if any, Millet has for Quinn, but the latter artist’s work, at least in some respects, echoes the peasant painter’s use of art to address social concerns.
The white silence is violence mantra, which Quinn said helped spur him to make the Reid statue, has a creepy totalitarian ring to it, especially when imposed upon and enforced by all manner of corporate and nonprofit entities. Powerful art can emerge from mixed motives that may include opportunism on the part of artists. Turner’s 1840 masterpiece Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)—not on view in the Nashville exhibition, which is exclusively drawn from the London-based Tate’s extensive Turner Bequest—was painted the year after the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was formed. Its exhibition at the Royal Academy coincided with the organization’s first convention, according to Franny Moyle’s Turner biography. Its drowning African figures, like most of Turner’s European figures late in his career, are of secondary importance to the all-engulfing water and light, which he whipped into a frenzy to capture his sense of the sublime. (Originally owned by the critic John Ruskin, in 1876 it was purchased by Boston abolitionist Alice Sturgis Hooper.)
The Nashville show does include The Deluge, a much earlier work depicting the Biblical flood, which Turner exhibited in 1805 in his own gallery, accompanied by a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost. While the sun blazes in Slave Ship, the sky in The Deluge is overwhelmingly dark, even as its besieged figures are more legible and prominent, particularly that of a heroic black man trying to save a girl from drowning in the foreground.
Though Biblical, the imagery, in some respects, anticipates that of Théodore Géricault’s iconic, gruesome The Raft of the Medusa (c. 1819), which depicts the scandalous aftermath of a French frigate’s 1816 shipwreck off the coast of Senegal in a way that draws viewers’ eyes to a black man atop the pyramid of bodies, waving his shirt to try to flag down a ship on the horizon—a last-ditch gesture of hope. (After failing to find a buyer at the Salon, Géricault’s controversial painting traveled elsewhere in Europe, including to London, where it drew 40,000 viewers. At least two of Turner’s later shipwreck paintings, including Slave Ship, indicate his awareness of Géricault’s masterpiece.)
As for the black man in Turner’s The Deluge, the object label and gallery guide speculate that he “was probably added in sympathy with British campaigns to end the slave trade, an evil worthy of divine punishment in the eyes of abolitionists like the Earl of Carysfort, for whom the picture may have been intended”—a passage that stopped me in my tracks. Turner may well have painted the heroic figure with an abolitionist buyer in mind, but in 1805 he was also seeking to diversify his income streams by investing in a tontine for a Jamaican venture explicitly and entirely dependent on slave labor, as documented by Moyle and in Stephen J. May’s Voyage of the Slave Ship: J. M. W. Turner’s Masterpiece in Historical Context.
The venture went belly up, and Turner appears to have grown more authentically abolitionist with the passage of time, but the Tate’s omission of this context—the gallery guide was adapted from a 2019 essay by the Tate’s David Blayney Brown—is doubly unfortunate for having made its way to Tennessee, a former slave state. (For that matter, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ interpretation of Slave Ship could use some updating.) In an email, the Frist relayed a statement from chief curator Mark Scala agreeing that “that the information about this contradiction is important to know, and it would certainly have been valuable to explore Turner’s attitudes toward slavery throughout his career—were they set, or did they evolve?” and promising to “share this conversation” with Brown, “who will certainly be interested.” At any rate, Turner’s violence was less a matter of “white silence,” on the one hand, or of “yet another example of white privilege in action,” as Price wrote of Quinn’s statue in the Art Newspaper, than of an unconscionable attempt to profit directly off the brutality of the slave trade at a time when the stakes were infinitely higher than the question of whose statue should grace a plinth in Bristol.
Is Quinn more like Millet, a peasant landowner’s son (and father of six daughters) who worked the family farm in his youth and knew his subject matter intimately, or Turner, as crafty and duplicitous an opportunist as art history can offer? I don’t know, and I’m not sure how much it should matter to anyone who doesn’t live, work or directly associate with Quinn—or why it should be important to future generations of artists and viewers.
Price worries that Quinn’s “votive statue to appropriation” could “overshadow any permanent sculpture that eventually goes there,” but surely that depends on what that sculpture is and on how the world continues to change. Millet, the rustic outsider, made what became, a mere fifteen years after his death, one of the most expensive artworks ever sold (The Angelus, 1857–59), which influenced a mind-boggling international array of artists well into the twentieth century, before falling into the relative obscurity from which the St. Louis show attempts to rescue him. The cosmopolitan, well-traveled Turner never found success in continental Europe yet made it big enough in Britain to grow fabulously wealthy, but many of his most experimental and eventually influential works weren’t exhibited until more than a century after his death.
Whatever you make of the genuineness of Quinn’s allyship, if Price is right that “a moment of social change” can be so easily “hijacked” by the fleeting erection of a statue, one can only wonder how substantive the change he envisions really is.
Image by Alex Richards – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92271784