Posing Modernity, an exhibition that opened last Thursday at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery is a rare exploration of the trajectory of change in portrayal of the black model through the works of various artists from late 19th century Europe to North America today. Furthermore, as the show’s curator Dennis Murrell suggests, its purpose is to propose that the change in the “representation of the black female figure has been central to the development of modernism.”

The exhibition, arranged chronologically, begins with works of Édouard Manet, the artists often referred to as the father of modernism. His painting Olympia– unfortunately not on view at the gallery – shocked the contemporaneous establishment with its subject, as much as it did with its technique. A nude portrait of a prostitute, executed with flat, fluid brushstrokes, Olympia was an insult to the academic tradition. The protagonist of the painting is white, but its second subject, a maid holding flowers, is a black female.  Manet’s choice to paint the model, whose name, according to the artist’s notes, was Laure, fully dressed, wearing a plain working dress, as opposed to depicting her as a wet nurse or as an exotically erotic “other,” is another reason for its radical newness.  Laure, depicted as the servant in Olympia, became the subject of Manet’s single and intense focus in La Négresse (The Portrait of Laure), which is on view at the Wallach. The evolution of the representation seen in this portrait is central to the show’s narrative. The model, portrayed in what looks like her everyday attire, gazes directly at the viewer – Laure is not a symbol, but a direct representation of a person.

The show explores the role of black female through the worksof Manet’s contemporaries and acolytes: painters Frederic Bazille and Edgar Degas, photographer Nadar, sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, all of which depict black females in various aspects of everyday life. Exhorted by Charles Baudeleire, the motive of everyday life engendered the development of modernism and, corollary, the reconsideration of the role of the black model – from an anonymous extra to a figure of an equivalent or single focus. The works of Henri Matisse, presented at the Wallach, trace the continuity of the trend. In Coffee and Aïcha et Lorette, he portrays Aïcha Goblet, professional black female model alongside his frequent Italian sitter Lorette.  Both women, depicted in his signature flattened and mask-like form are represented as equals, facing the viewer side by side, as if colleagues or friends.  The show concludes with the tribute to the legacy of Manet and Matisse as seen in the contemporary works of Mickalene Thomas and Romare Beardene.