“Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery is a long past due exhibition curated by Denise Murrell. Her exhibition focuses on overlooked black female models in the paintings of classical modernist painters like Matisse and Manet.
One of the most interesting paintings in this exhibition is Manet’s “Olympia”. What’s interesting about this painting is that even though the painting has been discussed profoundly in art history, the black model wearing a headwrap is continuously overlooked. As stated eloquently by Denise Murrell, “This woman is in full view, but she’s invisible, ignored in the narrative…. Would Manet really give all this pictorial space to someone he didn’t want us to pay attention to?” This brings up the question: Why are women of color continuously overlooked in classical art, even when the artists include them in these paintings for specific purposes? Artists from the Harlem Renaissance featured in this exhibit included these Black women in their art because Modernism is meant to tell “the critical story of modern portrayals of black figures”.
The beautiful part about this rediscovery of black models in Early Modernism is that we can see what black women were wearing and how they were living their everyday lives during these early time periods. It is important that we continue to talk about those who are often overlooked in history so that their stories are not forgotten.